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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.

• 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.

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