We associate growing old with slowing down and falling apart. But don’t tell that to Olga Kotelko, who started competing in track and field when she was 74 and at age 94 takes part in 11 track and field sports. Olga trains hard and flies across the globe to compete against athletes almost half her age.
She’s collected 750 gold medals and has broken 26 world records. In What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives (Henry Holt, 2014) author Bruce Grierson interviews Kotelko and her doctors to try and uncover the factors behind her fine physical fettle. It is more than lifestyle alone. Her active longevity appears to be a mix of smart habits and great genes. Russell Hepple, a researcher on aging at McGill University who has studied Kotelko extensively notes, “She’s remarkable by every criteria that we measured. She has the capability of somebody close to 30 years her junior.”
Kotelko has actually gotten stronger since she turned 90. Hepple has concluded that while she trains hard and is constantly moving, her activity level is only part of the explanation. In two years between tests, she lost virtually no wind and no strength, even though she had cut back her training. That seems to bear out Hepple’s hunch that something else is going on in the muscle, irrespective of exercise effects.
Hepple and other exercise physiologists who have worked with Kotelko note that she is free of sarcopenia, a decline in muscle mass and strength that is the hallmark of aging and one of the most significant triggers for age-related disabilities.
Sarcopenia is, in fact, the most important cause of age-related frailty that you never heard about. There wasn’t a term for the process until 30 years ago and doctors only recently came to an agreement about its clinical definition. For a long time muscle loss was virtually ignored by the medical community as public attention focused much more on osteoporosis.
Dr. Claudia Kawas a neurologist at University of California, Irvine and the director of what’s known as the “90+” study, has been collecting data about the diet, exercise, vitamins and activities of thousands of seniors living at Leisure World (now known as Laguna Hills) for the past 20 years.
The study had originally asked “What kind of shape will we be in if we do live past 90?” In analyzing the research results it became clear that the real question was “what kind of shape do we have to be in if we want to increase our chances of living longer?”
Kawas recently told 60 Minutes, “It turns out that the best thing to do as you age is to at least maintain or even gain weight.” People who were overweight or of average weight outlived people who were underweight.
But there’s a catch: It’s not just how much you weigh, but how you maintain or gain weight. While the 90 + study hasn’t studied the muscle health-longevity link, many scientists, curious about the role weight gain plays in living longer, have carried out such research.
Why is muscle important? Because loss of muscle mass and strength leads to frailty. People who are frail fatigue easily, are physically inactive, and have a slow—and often unsteady—gait, with an increased risk (and fear) of falling. The consequences of frailty are serious: Frail individuals have many associated medical conditions, including depression, which ultimately lead to a reduced life expectancy.
Sarcopenia is an important biological process underlying frailty. We begin to lose lean muscle mass between 30 and 40 years of age. By age 50 the pace of muscle mass loss increases to 1 to 2 percent per year. After age 60 the decline accelerates to as much as 3 percent per year and after age 75 sarcopenia progress faster still.
Sarcopenia increases the risk of not just frailty, but physical disability, poor quality of life, and death. Scientists have not established exactly how and why, but they have shown that the amount of muscle plays a central role in whole-body metabolism, which is particularly important in the response to stress and the ability to fend off age-related diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In particular, researchers have found that muscle has an underappreciated ability to produce a number of immune responses and healthy growth factors that sustain the function of the heart, liver, lungs and the brain.
Research has also identified some of the biological sources of sarcopenia. One key factor promoting loss of muscle-related weight as we age is a protein called myostatin. Myostatin affects the cells and pathways responsible for muscle growth and regeneration. The older we get, the more myostatin we produce. As myostatin levels increase, it blocks the production of cells responsible for the lean muscle repair and growth. In turn, the reduction in lean muscle regeneration leads to increased fat deposits and fibrosis in muscle tissue. The good news is that sarcopenia is preventable and reversible. Exercise is a key component in the fight against sarcopenia. Physical activity appears to reduce myostatin levels, which restores a healthy balance between muscle mass and fatty tissue. A healthy diet and a proper amount of protein are also essential for muscle development.
While exercise and better nutrition are important factors in combating sarcopenia, they may not be enough. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that several pharmaceutical companies are now trying to develop drugs to regulate myostatin production and help us keep muscle-related weight. In addition, there do exist bio-nutritional products—foods that contain naturally biologically active molecules—that reduce the activity of myostatin.
The estimated direct healthcare cost attributable to sarcopenia in the United States in 2000 was $18.5 billion. The indirect costs of sarcopenia are likely ten times that because of the role it plays in the progression of costly illnesses. This doesn’t count the loss in earnings and value of health from living without sarcopenia-related disabilities.
The potential benefit of preventing sarcopenia is hard to quantify. As University of Illinois demographer Jay Olshansky notes, “Slowing the aging process by an achievable three to seven years would simultaneously postpone all fatal and nonfatal disabling diseases, produce gains in health and longevity equivalent to cures for major fatal diseases, and create scientific, medical, and economic windfalls for future generations that would be roughly equivalent in impact to the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th century.”
Staying strong could indeed be the penicillin of the 21st century.
MYOS Corporation is an emerging bionutrition and biotherapeutics company focused on the discovery, development and commercialization of products that improve muscle health and function essential to the management of sarcopenia, cachexia and degenerative muscle diseases. www.myoscorp.com
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