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Canada’s Olga Kotelko competes in the women’s long jump during the Masters Games in Sydney Oct. 16, 2009. (Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press)
Canada’s Olga Kotelko competes in the women’s long jump during the Masters Games in Sydney Oct. 16, 2009. (Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press)

What a 94-year-old track star can teach us about aging Add to ...

On June 25, 2014, Olga Kotelko died. She was 95.

Not long ago, I came across a little list I’d scribbled in a notebook.“Here is what 47 feels like on a bad day”:

• You prepare a little milk, with a dash of vanilla, in a mug, which you go to heat up in the microwave. There is already a mug of milk, with a dash of vanilla, in there.

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• You discover in the bathroom drawer a product you remember buying to give hair more “volume and energy.” You have no hair.

• You run into people you know, but can’t remember the level of intimacy you have with them. (Do we hug? You approach fearfully.)

• You worry you have become too unfit to successfully perform CPR on someone like you.

There were more items on the list, including one that started and simply trailed off. I’d either forgotten what it was or grown too depressed to continue.

Aging happens, of course – I just hadn’t expected its sour breath so soon. Isn’t 50 supposed to be the new 30? Apparently not for me. For whatever reason, I’d gotten old the way the way Hemingway said people go broke: slowly and then quickly.

And then came a stroke of amazing fortune. Olga Kotelko dropped into my life.

You may have heard of Olga. She is a Canadian track-and-field athlete who is rewriting the record books and piquing the interest of scientists by defying the normal trajectory of human aging. Olga will turn 95 in March. She is still high jumping, long jumping, and sprinting. She’s lost a bit of speed since she was 90, but not too much. Off the track, she brims with purpose, blazes with life.

Exactly why Olga feels and acts decades younger than her chronological age is a mystery she agreed to explore by gamely submitting to a battery of tests: her muscle fibers were sampled, her cardiovascular system assessed, her brain scanned, her personality traits examined.

Even without all these tests, it’s pretty obvious Olga has been blessed with great genes. But because health and longevity are thought to be more a matter of good management than good luck (except in the super-aged, where genetic inheritance starts mattering disproportionately more every year beyond age 100), her habits were worth putting under a microscope too. I wondered if some of the same mechanisms could help explain what was going so right for Olga, and so wrong for me.

When we shook the research a few hard truths fell out. I sit too much, and exercise wrong, and don’t sleep enough, and fail to breathe properly, and my diet is no bargain. Some of these weren’t exactly surprises: we can feel the weight of our bad habits even when we can’t see them. But one finding blew me away – I think the wrong thoughts.

It turns out our attitudes about aging can actually affect how we age – and even how fast.

As old as you feel

Not long ago, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and her colleagues studied men who started balding prematurely. These guys were revealed to be at greater risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer and coronary disease. There’s no clear scientific reason why this should be so.

Prof. Langer’s guess is that “balding is a cue for old age. Therefore, men who go bald early in life may perceive themselves as older and are consequently predicted to age more quickly.” It was as if the hairless guys’ minds sent out a memo that old age had begun, and their body duly adjusted to this sad news. (The theory is still being studied, but it jibes with what happened to me. I too started going bald in a big hurry around age 40, and not long after my fitness deserted me.)

Yale psychologist Becca Levy, who investigates the consequences of ageism, has found similar effects. She tracked a group of more than 500 subjects aged 70 to 96 over a few years. Judging from responses to a standardized test, it was clear that some had drunk the cultural Kool-Aid and believed “seniors,” as identifiable by their grey and their wrinkles and their stoop, were weak and compromised. Others had a much more optimistic view of what seniors can still do. Prof. Levy found there were actual physiological differences between these two groups of subjects as well. The ones who didn’t hew to age stereotypes showed less hearing loss after 36 months.

(Stanford developmental psychologist Carol Dweck would say that that second group is endowed with a “growth mindset.” When people think of themselves as capable of continual improvement, Prof. Dweck has found, they improve. In one of her more famous studies, middle-school girls who were shown a science video explaining how the brain is plastic, that it grows and adapts – meaning there’s no reason people can’t get smarter and smarter – suddenly started to achieve higher grades.)

Feeling old is a major bringdown, too – and being bummed out is itself linked to accelerated aging, a Dutch team of scientists has found. In a study published in November in Molecular Psychiatry, they found that depressed people had shorter telomeres. Telomeres are little protein caps on the end of our chromosomes; their length is a rough gauge of our biological age.

The dance of mind and body is obviously complicated, and scientists still don’t know how to interpret some findings. For example, at the Alzheimer’s International Conference in Boston last July, at least two studies linked “subjective cognitive decline” – the uneasy feeling that you’re starting to lose your marbles – to evidence of actual decline. In one, brain scans revealed more plaques in the brains of people who’d been complaining of memory issues than in the brains of controls. Whether the Nervous Nellies were simply detecting early signs of impairment, or actually hastening impairment with their worrying, no one can say. But the correlations are clear.

Whichever part was leading the dance, brain or body, I was clearly becoming an old fogey from the neck up and the neck down when I met Olga four years ago.

Olga, however, was and is merrily spiraling in the opposite direction. She has a positive attitude about everything – not in that annoyingly Pollyannaish way of people who just refuse to acknowledge the dark stuff, but in a way that says “I choose not to let the dark stuff have a negative effect on me.”

Every new hair on her head that comes in black not grey, every clerk or customs agent who performs a spit-take upon hearing how old she is, confirms to her that she’s effectively no more than a middle-aged woman, for whom little if anything is impossible.

A verb in the world

For as long as she can remember – certainly since growing up among 10 siblings on a Saskatchewan farm, and counting cow-milking and hay-stacking among her chores – Olga was encouraged to be a verb in the world. She was always active, and as an elementary school teacher she coaxed laggard kids outside to play at recess, and then played with them to keep their interest up. After retiring, she joined a slow-pitch baseball league.

The track and field career is a relatively new chapter: she only took up the sport at 77. But her get-it-done attitude chimed with off-the-charts physical co-ordination, and she found her groove almost immediately. In 2009 alone, the year she turned 90, she set 20 world records.

As these more obvious accomplishments continue to pile up, a subtler accomplishment is the mindset she has created to keep the train chugging along. She believes deeply in her systems for good health and high performance – from diet (very little processed food) to deep breathing (in for a count of seven, out for a count of three, whenever you feel tension coming on) to her self-styled auto-massage technique (from toes to scalp, performed in bed in the dead of night).

She is also a thoroughgoing optimist, and though the data around optimism and longevity is murky, most studies suggest positive people live longer and are happier in the bargain.

So Olga hasn’t just decided she’s going to be competing at a high level at age 100 – she’s convinced of it.

Her success in track and field almost from the get-go has also created a kind of multiplier effect. Nabbing gold medals at world meets makes her feel bulletproof – which sends her back out there onto the pitch with through-the-roof confidence, with predictably positive results. And so the cycle continues, a feedback loop of age-defeating vitality.

The stories we tell to ourselves, about ourselves, keep us moving forward, as well as we can, for as long as we have.

Joining Olga

In this light, my 47-year-old self, the one who made that list of alarming signs of impending dotage, was falling into some predictable mental traps.

Something weird happens to a lot of us around midlife. We suddenly stop trying stuff. Not because we can’t do it, necessarily, but because we imagine we can’t. Studies show people’s interest in any given task peaks when the risk of failing at it is around 50 per cent. And from around age 30 on the odds of failing at “it,” whatever it is, seems to tip in favour of the house. So we opt out. And our horizons shrink.

That fear of failure also ages us. We stop putting our whole heart into life – and the moment half-heartedness becomes a habit, something dies in us.

Olga doesn’t fail much, but her willingness to keep putting herself in positions where she could fall flat, very publicly, was one of the biggest differences between us.

In the end, her attitude was so infectious it penetrated my defences. And that’s when the dynamic between us changed. I stopped merely observing her remarkable story, and stepped into it.

“You’ve inspired me to try something,” I told her one afternoon, a couple of years into our friendship, as we met for lunch.

“Oh?”

The outdoor masters track-and-field world championships were coming up in Sacramento, with competitors from eighty countries already committed, and Olga one of the rock-star headliners.

“I just signed up for the 10,000 metres,” I said.

To cover it? she asked.

“To run it.”

And with that decision, I entered Olga’s world – a place where aging is reframed, and time slows down.

How to age like Olga

Olga Kotelko is a 94-year-old track star. In addition to good genes, lots of sleep and the right attitude, Olga works to keep her brain as fit as the rest of her. Here are her four tips for staying mentally sharp:

Play games

The brain isn’t a muscle, but it works like one in its use-it-or-lose-it dimension. Our brains are way more plastic than we used to think, and a challenged brain can grow new neural connections quite deep into old age. Olga is crazy for Sudoku, the Japanese number game, and she does the hard ones. In pen.

Learn another language

Olga’s Ukranian is a little rusty but it’s there – so she discovered when global interest in her grew and Ukrainian news teams came knocking. A 2013 study by the Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India – the largest of its kind to date – found that having a second language delays the onset of dementia by around four-and-a-half years, on average.

Make a mistake, then take notes

To speed up learning, of any skill or subject, we need immediate and specific feedback on our performance. Champion chess and backgammon players promptly review the game they just lost, just as top students promptly review and correct errors. Olga actually happens to have a gene linked to learning from your mistakes. But it’s likely her habits, more than her genes, that are driving the bus here. Very little she does escapes her own immediate and systematic appraisal. In her bowling league, for example, “When I get a strike, I take note of where I was standing and how hard did I throw it,” she says, “and then try to duplicate those conditions.”

Exercise

Better even than mental activity is exercise combined with it. Exercise comprehensively it beats back cognitive decline as we age. Exercise grows the hippocampus, the brain region associated with making and consolidating memories; it’s what you want to lean on when you start misplacing your glasses, or worse.

Bruce Grierson’s book What Makes Olga Run? (Random House Canada) will be released on Jan. 14.

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