The Brain, Exercise and Successful Aging

Successful aging involves minimal debility past the age of 65 or so, with little or no serious chronic disease diagnoses, depression, cognitive decline or physical infirmities that would prevent someone from living independently.  If only we can look into a crystal ball and see the secrets to successful aging.  We can take a proactive approach to aging gracefully even if we start the process later in life.

Previous studies have identified several, no-brainer factors enhance successful aging. Not surprisingly smoking is one, as is reasonable alcohol consumption, social interaction and healthy whole food nutrition.

However, being physically active during adulthood is particularly important. In one study published looked at over 12,000 Australian men aged between 65 and 83, those who engaged in about 30 minutes of exercise five or more times per week were substantially healthier and less likely to be dead 11 years after the start of the study than those who were sedentary.

A growing body of research is focusing whether physical activity could also have a positive impact on brain aging with analyzing healthy brain aging as well as on cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Organizations such as Alzheimer Associations recommend physical activity may help prevent cognitive decline and dementia.  In 2006, the estimated number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia, was 26.6 million worldwide with an estimated increase to 106.8 million by 2050.  This fact is a concern considering the size of our aging population.

However there is hope and one exceptional example that breaks the cognitive decline barrier is Olga Kotelko, a 93-year-old Canadian track-and-field athlete with more than 30 world records in her age group.  Olga can be considered the “oldest of old” and a shining example of the potential beneficial impact of exercise on aged cognition.

In the summer of 2012, scientists at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois requested her to participate in-depth analysis of her brain.

At the age of 65 Kotelko started her athletic career with slow-pitch softball and at 77 transferred to track-and-field events. Before she died in 2014, she had won an amazing 750 gold medals in her age group in World Masters Athletics events, and had set new world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, high jump, long jump, javelin, discus, shot put and hammer events!

At the lab, Kotelko submitted to an MRI brain scan, a cardiorespiratory fitness test on a treadmill, and cognitive tests. (All of the data are available at XNAT, a public repository; Kotelko and her daughter agreed to make her data public.)  “In our studies, we often collect data from adults who are between 60 and 80 years old, and we have trouble finding participants who are 75 to 80 and relatively healthy,” said U. of I. postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the new analysis.

The researchers found that Kotelko’s white-matter tracts were remarkably intact — comparable to those of women decades younger.  “Olga had the highest measure of white-matter integrity in that part of the brain, even higher than those younger females, which was very surprising,” she said. These white-matter tracts serve a region of the brain that is engaged in tasks known to decline fastest in aging, such as reasoning, planning and self-control, Burzynska said.  Olga performed better on cognitive test than other adults her own age and her Hippocampus was larger than people her age too.

In addition, Burzynska said “But I think it’s very exciting to see someone who is highly functioning at 93, possessing numerous world records in the athletic field and actually having very high integrity in a brain region that is very sensitive to aging. I hope it will encourage people that even as we age, our brains remain plastic. We have more and more evidence for that.”

Hats off to Olga for setting a stellar example of aging gracefully and cognitively superior than her counterparts and even people much younger that her age.  She provides motivation for the aging population to get up, out and move!

  • R. Brookmeyer, E. Johnson, K. Ziegler-Graham, H.M. Arrighi, Forecasting the global burden of Alzheimer’s disease



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