A 115-year old Dutch woman who agreed to donate her body to science showed virtually no signs of cognitive decline, or structural changes associated with memory decline and Alzheimer’s Disease. According to this article, she was tested at the age of 111 with a battery of neurological and psychological assessment measures, and was found to have cognitive functioning that would be considered above-average for a person in the 60-75 age range.
After her death, her brain was examined, and there was no significant evidence of structural deterioration, or other signs associated with the development of dementia. The researchers found she had the same number of brain cells as a healthy 60-80 year old.
What to do with this information? Well, as the article points out, this type of data is extremely useful, as researchers aren’t able to come across it every day. On the other hand, I would imagine that is changing. I would guess that with the improvements in medicine, and the subsequent aging of our population, it will become easier over time to gather data from larger and larger samples of older and older people. While people living to the age of 115 are still quite rare, more and more people are making it past 100, so the data may be on its way.
Once that happens, data can then be collected. What types of variables set these individuals apart, both from those who don’t make it so long, as well as between group differences? The initial data likely will be gathered retrospectively, but eventually longitudinal studies will be possible, as well as true experimental designs. All in good time.
From this report alone, however, we can at least glean that cognitive deterioration is not, in fact, a foregone conclusion (at least through the age of 115). It’ll be interesting to hear about the habits and lifestyle of this woman, and whether that can lead to any additional insights with respect to healthy aging. For example, the article notes she lived independently until the age of 105, and was an “active thinker.” What that means, exactly, would have to be described, but I would assume she was engaged in the world, both cognitively and behaviorally, which would be consistent with what is recommended for healthy aging already. Hopefully more can be learned.