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Good habits, fiery spirit give 94-year-old edge

NEW YORK: For 94-year-old Canadian Olga Kotelko, it’s not the high jump, javelin throw, pole vault or sprint that poses the biggest fitness challenge. It’s finding someone age-appropriate to compete against.

Kotelko, a Vancouver-based retired schoolteacher, took up track and field at age 77. She has a closet full of medals, but with so few other women athletes in her age bracket, she often finds herself competing against 80-to 85-year-olds, or men.

“I love competing against athletes my own age but if I don’t have any, I’ll compete against myself,” she said.

Kotelko defies the standard image of aging and typifies what scientists call compression of morbidity. She has managed to postpone the onset of chronic or debilitating illness and is still going strong.

To keep her edge, she works out for an hour and a half every day. She takes a water aerobics class three times a week and regularly does stretching exercises and deep breathing.

“I’ll end up with splits,” said Kotelko, who often hits the exercise mat in the middle of a sleepless night.

Canadian author Bruce Grierson lives near Kotelko. While bedeviled by his own midlife aches and pains, he was so astonished by her feats that he persuaded her to allow scientists to study her in hopes of uncovering her secret to aging well.

His recent book “What Makes Olga Run” chronicles her story and the test results.

“She was curious about her own physiology, so she agreed to be a bit of an open book,” Grierson, 51, said.

The results of the scientific studies at The Beckman Institute in Urbana, Illinois, which did a battery of MRIs and memory and cognitive tests on Kotelko, show her health and prowess are mainly due to a combination of good habits, a positive attitude and her driven personality.

“It’s impossible to tease out what’s driving the bus,” he said, “But genes aren’t the half of it with Olga. It’s the way she has lived her life.”

Tests showed that, by some measures, Kotelko has the brain of a 50- or 60-year-old, according to Grierson. Often the gap between brain and skull grows with aging but Kotelko’s resembles that of a much younger person.

Her hippocampus, a small region of the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation that is known to respond well to exercise, looks especially good.

But Grierson said she showed signs of aging in other areas, and despite Kotelko’s abilities, she finds it difficult to learn new techniques.

Kotelko said she avoids injury by keeping her body tuned up, not training when it rains and eating four or five small meals a day.

“She’s very attuned to what her body is telling her. She doesn’t get overstressed,” Grierson said.

Dr. Robert E. Sallis, a physician with the American College of Sports Medicine, explained it as squaring off the geriatric curve that plots functional capacity, versus age.

“People who are inactive tend to lose functional capacity much earlier than those who are active,” Sallis said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 29, 2014, on page 13.

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Summary

For 94-year-old Canadian Olga Kotelko, it's not the high jump, javelin throw, pole vault or sprint that poses the biggest fitness challenge.

Kotelko defies the standard image of aging and typifies what scientists call compression of morbidity.

Canadian author Bruce Grierson lives near Kotelko.

Tests showed that, by some measures, Kotelko has the brain of a 50- or 60-year-old, according to Grierson.

Kotelko said she avoids injury by keeping her body tuned up, not training when it rains and eating four or five small meals a day.


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