August 22, 2013

Study seeks 'super ager' secrets to brain health

By Lindsey Tanner / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Edith Stern, 92, talks to a new resident in the cafeteria at her retirement home in Chicago. Stern is a "super ager" participating in a Northwestern University study of people in their 80s and 90s. Stern is a vibrant presence at the home, where she acts as a sort of room mother, volunteering in the gift shop, helping residents settle in and making sure their needs are met.

AP

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85-year-old Don Tenbrunsel, a soup kitchen volunteer, laughs with other volunteers as he makes lunches at St. Josaph's Church in Chicago. Tenbrunsel is a "super ager" participating in a Northwestern University study of people in their 80s and 90s with astounding memories.

AP

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Stern acknowledges she's different from most people at the home, even many younger residents.

"I am young — inside. And I think that's the difference," she said.

"I grasp fast," she adds. "If people say something, they don't have to tell me twice. I don't forget it."

She's different in other ways, too.

"When you get old, people are mainly interested in themselves. They talk about the doctor, what hurts," she said. "You are not so important that you just concentrate on yourself. You have to think about other people."

Study participant Don Tenbrunsel has a similar mindset. The 85-year-old retired businessman doesn't think of himself as a super ager. "Neither do my children," he says, chuckling.

But Tenbrunsel says his memory has been sharp "from the time I was born. My mother used to say, 'Donald, come sing with me — not because I had a good voice, but because I always knew the words," he said. "I think I'm just lucky, not only with respect to my memory, but I'm able to get around very well; I walk a lot and I have a pretty good attitude toward life itself."

Tenbrunsel volunteers several hours a week at a food pantry run by the Chicago church where he is a parishioner. One recent morning in the sun-filled rectory kitchen, he nimbly packaged ham and cheese sandwiches, set out bags of chips and cans of soda, and cheerfully greeted a steady stream of customers.

"Good morning, good to see you," he said, standing at the pantry's bright red door. He gave everyone their choice of chips — a small gesture but important, he said, because it gives them some sense of control over their hard-luck lives.

"I enjoy doing it. I probably get more out of it than I give," Tenbrunsel said.

Ken Zwiener, of Deerfield, Ill., is another super ager. He had "more than an inkling" he might qualify for the study, and his kids encouraged him to enroll.

"They said, 'Dad, your brain is the best thing about you,'" the 81-year-old retired businessman recalled.

He's a golfer and Broadway musical "nut" who created a 300-plus-page computer database of shows. Zwiener uses an iPad, recently went hot-air ballooning and is trying to learn Spanish.

He also pours himself a vodka martini every night and is a pack-a-day cigarette smoker, but says he doesn't think his habits have made much difference. His healthy brain, he says, may be due to heredity and genes, but Zwiener said he hopes the study comes up with more "scientific insights".

"My dad lived into his middle 90s and was pretty sharp right up until the day he died," Zwiener said.

Zwiener's motivation for joining the study was simple: The best man at his wedding died of Alzheimer's disease before age 50.

"To lose a mind ... is just a terrible way to go," he said.

___

Online:

SuperAging study: http://tinyurl.com/lo75t7b

Alzheimer's Association: http://www.alz.org

 

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Additional Photos

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A researcher holds a human brain in a laboratory at Northwestern University's cognitive neurology and Alzheimer's disease center in Chicago. Studies show that in super agers, the brain's cortex, or outer layer, responsible for many mental functions including memory, is thicker than in typical 80- and 90-year-olds.

AP

  


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