A 93 year old woman may hold the secrets to longevity, but how can we all try to live this way? This post from Prevention turns the spot light on how a brain researcher discovered the fountain of youth in a 93-year-old athlete.
Aga Burzynska is rock climbing on a bluff outside Fort Collins, CO, as she often does. While she reaches for craggy fingerholds in the veined surface, Burzynska, a neuroscientist, calculates and recalculates, her brain and body working together to scale the vertical. Burzynska loves the outdoors and the way exercise makes her feel. But the challenging physicality of climbing is doing more than just bringing her pleasure; it’s fortifying her brain to stay sharp into old age. And Burzynska knows this more than anyone, because she’s advanced the research in this area—by studying a single, fascinating woman named Olga Kotelko.
Kotelko took up track and field at the age of 77, and then went on to dominate international sports competitions well into her 90s, always pushing herself to do more. But it’s not Kotelko’s remarkable physical prowess that has captured Burzynska’s fascination. What gets her excited is Kotelko’s brain. (Boost your memory with these natural solutions.)
At the time of Kotelko’s death at age 95, her mind was ultrasharp: She spent the last years of her life working on an autobiography, The O.K. Way to a Happy, Healthy Life. She read the newspaper cover to cover every day, always making time for the Sudoku puzzle. She sang complicated ecclesiastical hymns with her church choir. Even at 95, her cognition was far from softening or slowing.
Which, of course, would be fascinating to any neuroscientist. The typical human brain shrinks over time, with neural connections atrophying and thick brain matter literally thinning. High blood pressure and other heart-related conditions make things worse and may contribute to a disorder called vascular dementia, the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s. In fact, dementia sets in for 30% of us after age 85. But not for Kotelko.
How can we all have what Kotelko had? That question has put her extraordinary achievements at the center of Aga Burzynska’s career. And that’s a good thing, because Burzynska is uncovering secrets about aging, memory, andhow to maintain a youthful mind. What she’s found suggests that Kotelko’s edge was not in what she was born with, but what she did. Which means we all have a shot at the same incredible advantage.
Kotelko was an ordinary grandmother from West Vancouver, and those who met her were struck by her warmth and hooked on her legendary pierogi. For much of her life, she was too busy raising two girls as a single mother, teaching elementary school, and volunteering at her church to have any time for sports, save for bowling once a week. But when she retired in 1984, she discovered her inner jock. First she joined a coed slow-pitch softball team. She loved the sport and played until she was 77, but after crashing into a guy twice her size while chasing a fly ball, she decided to quit. At the suggestion of a friend, she switched to track and field. Kotelko went on to become a superstar in international masters’ competitions, winning 750 gold medals and setting 37 world records in sprinting, the long jump, the javelin throw, and other events. She competed for the final time in 2014, in Hungary, just weeks before she passed away. Ever the self-deprecating charmer, she was quick to point out that she likely set so many records because no one else her age could even do the events. But in truth she was throwing and running farther and faster than much-younger women. (Here’s how much exercise you need to seriously lower your Alzheimer’s risk.)
When Kotelko was 93, she agreed to let scientists at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois study her brain. The night before her day in the lab, she had a conversation with Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer, a cognitive psychologist and one of the world’s leading authorities on aging, cognition, and physical activity. “The students conducting the study are excited,” Kramer told Kotelko, “but if you get tired, take a break.”
“Art,” she said, “I don’t get tired.”
The Beckman researchers tested Kotelko’s memory, problem-solving abilities, processing speed, and other cognitive skills. They also placed her in an MRI machineand scanned her brain. Although the team that conducted the study wrote a preliminary analysis of its findings, it didn’t publish the research immediately. A month later, Burzynska turned up at Beckman to start her new job as a postdoctoral researcher. As she began talking with her new colleagues about what kinds of research projects she might undertake, she heard about Kotelko’s visit and the trove of data that awaited deeper analysis. “Could I take a look?” she asked.
That was late summer 2012, only a month after Kotelko’s visit and tests. The two women—who, despite being decades apart in age, had similar family histories and comparable childhood experiences—would never meet.
Kotelko’s brain was not pristine. MRIs revealed a large number of tiny white dots, or hyperintensities, in her white matter, representing the kind of age-related changes commonly detected in the elderly. And her brain appeared to have shrunk slightly over time, but that’s also a given with aging, says Burzynska. Overall, though, Kotelko’s brain was extraordinarily youthful for a woman just a few years shy of the century mark. “Looking at the structure of her brain, I would not have been able to say she was 93,” Burzynska says. “I would have placed her in her 60s.”
For perspective, Burzynska and Kramer decided to compare Kotelko’s data with the results of similar tests that the Beckman Institute had collected from a group of women ages 60 to 78. For Burzynska, that meant spending long days working with MRIs, which needed to be refined and processed using special software. As she analyzed the scans, she began to feel a deep connection to Kotelko, who was born in remote Smuts, Saskatchewan, to parents who had immigrated to Canada from Ukraine. The seventh of 11 children, Kotelko grew up working on her parents’ farm and eventually became a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse 2 miles away. Burzynska shared Kotelko’s Eastern European heritage, having grown up in Poland, which borders Ukraine. The stories she heard from colleagues about Kotelko’s childhood reminded her of her own upbringing. As she pondered the ghostly images of Kotelko’s brain, Burzynska couldn’t stop wondering: Did all that running, jumping, and, perhaps most crucially, learning at that late age help keep Kotelko’s brain strong well into her tenth decade?
The answer seems to be yes, though the explanation is more complex than the standard “exercise is good.” Kotelko’s daily activity on its own was no doubt incredibly healthy for her mind and body. But the resilience of her brain late in life may have also stemmed from the fact that she never stopped challenging herself to learn, no matter how old she got.
Neuroscientists rely on various measures to study brain health, but Burzynska and her colleagues were particularly interested in the condition of Kotelko’s white matter, a critical brain component that can deteriorate with age. The neurons in the brain communicate with one another via axons, fibers that act like transmission lines. These are coated with a fatty substance called myelin. Together, axons and myelin form white matter. Myelin acts like an insulator, similar to plastic coating on electrical wires, and greatly increases how quickly and efficiently nerve signals travel from one region of the brain to another. This essentially defines cognitive abilities. People with intact white matter—college students, say—do best on all types of cognitive tests.
Myelin can become loose or degrade altogether in the aging brain. Some axons simply die off. As a result, signal transmission from one part of the brain to another—vital for clear thinking and solid memory—deteriorates and becomes less efficient.
After spending months poring over Kotelko’s results, Burzynska discovered what made her brain unique: The amount of white matter in her corpus callosum, a thick swath of fibers that transfer nerve signals between the brain’s left and right hemispheres—transmitting thoughts, movement, and memory—was off the charts. In fact, the health of Kotelko’s white matter was better than that of any of the younger women in the comparison study.
Become a jock—no, really
Starting from zero? Olga Kotelko’s coach tells you how to work your way toward athleticism.
Deciding that you want to learn how to high-jump or hurl a discus at age 77 is no simple task. But in her memoir,The O.K. Way to a Healthy, Happy Life (written with Roxanne Davies), Kotelko credits her coach and personal trainer, Barb Vida, with helping her become a track-and-field superstar. Vancouver-based Vida has worked with elite athletes of all ages and says if you are thinking of trying a new activity, following some simple steps can help guarantee success.
“I didn’t want Olga to run right away,” says Vida, who was concerned that the retired teacher’s 77-year-old body might not be ready for such vigorous activity. Initially, Vida had Kotelko build strength, balance, and coordination with aqua-fit classes and body-weight and wall exercises. (Try this total-body water workout.)
Break it down
When she taught Kotelko the long jump, Vida first had her do short sprints, then work out on a mini trampoline to improve the elasticity of her muscles. Then Vida had Kotelko practice leaping off both feet and, finally, propelling herself off one foot. Kotelko went on to set the world record in her age group.
Relax your mind and muscles
The stress of daily life can distract you from learning the finer points of your chosen activity and make your body too tense to execute new moves efficiently. Vida recommends yoga. “If you are able to calm your mind, you’ll be able to relax and stretch your muscles further,” she says. (Here are 7 stress-busting yoga moves.)
Watch and learn
As a newcomer to track and field, Kotelko made a point of observing high-level athletes compete. Having never touched a discus, thrown a javelin, or attempted shot put, she went to her local library to read up on them. Thanks to YouTube, you can easily watch whatever sport you’re interested in and glean tips from the action.
Burzynska, Kramer, and colleagues published their results online last August in the journal Neurocase. The findings have led to speculation about how Kotelko’s brain stayed so strong. “It makes sense,” says Kramer, pointing out that Kotelko performed a variety of track-and-field events, from the long jump to hurling the discus, all of which involve unique muscle movements. “That required lots of communication between different parts of her brain.” It’s possible, he says, that complex physical activities might convey more, or different, benefits to brain health than less-complex activities, like walking the same path every day. Mice that learn to run on wheels with irregularly placed rungs show increases in white matter, especially myelin; each time a new skill is learned later in a mouse’s life, new myelin is made. Research in humans supports the theory that physical learning increases the plasticity of the brain. And the benefits can come in unexpected ways. For example, one study found that learning to juggle increases the brain’s gray matter, which includes nerve cells and other components that process information. Another study found the same phenomenon in people who learn to play golf. It’s far from confirmed, but these early inklings suggest that starting a new, challenging physical activity could lead to the preservation, and perhaps growth, of myelin and that continuing with the activity may help preserve white matter—as it seemed to in Kotelko’s case.
Kramer and his team at the Beckman Institute are putting this theory to the test by comparing the brains and cognition of two groups of men and women ranging in age from 60 to 80. One group was asked to begin a walking regimen, while the other group learned to do new dance steps (most of them chose ballroom style). While those results are still being analyzed, Kramer’s team predicts that learning new skills requiring a combination of physical movement and mental focus may confer unique and potentially important brain changes.
The cognitive benefits of physical learning that Kotelko’s story illustrates are in addition to the amazing impact thatregular exercise alone has on the brain. This was underscored just last year when the Institute of Medicine published guidelines by a blue-ribbon panel of experts who determined that one of the best ways to keep your marbles as you grow older is to exercise regularly. And, happily for those of us who’ve been putting off workouts for most of our lives, there is plenty more research suggesting that it’s never too late to start.
To wit: University of Maryland researchers got a group of previously inactive adults ages 61 to 88 to walk at moderate intensity on treadmills four times a week for 30 minutes. Three months later, MRIs showed that many participants experienced a thickening of the cortex, the wrinkly gray outermost layer of the brain. It’s the thinning of the cortex that often presages the onset of mild cognitive impairment, a decline in thinking skills that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. The study supports previous research suggesting that exercise can improve memory function.
Scientists aren’t certain exactly how exercise works its magic, but it’s probably a combination of many factors. For instance, previous research has shown that physical activity ramps up production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein neurons need to survive, produced in greater quantities in younger brains. Exercise also lowers inflammation and blood sugar; high levels of both have been linked to dementia. Regular workouts also improve circulation and stimulate the growth of new blood vessels in the brain.
Her research on Kotelko may have ended, but Burzynska’s relationship with the woman still looms large in her mind. Not long ago, Burzynska was skiing at Colorado’s Eldora Mountain Resort and found herself on a chairlift chatting with an older woman keen to demonstrate how to handle moguls, the challenging bumps of snow that dot some ski slopes. Later, as Burzynska awkwardly navigated a mogul run, trying to implement the woman’s advice, a skier passed her. Burzynska squinted through the glare to see who it was—and had to laugh when she realized it was her friend from the lift, speeding merrily along into the distance.
Grow your brain
Already have a daily exercise routine? To optimize the mental benefits, consider tweaking it. Any new physical activity will spark neurogenesis, the increased growth of brain tissue. Some suggestions:
If you walk
Try mixing in intervals or walking on rocky trails.
If you swim
Tackle new strokes; consider open-water swimming.
If you bike
Take new routes; learn techniques to climb better and descend faster.
If you take gym classes
Try mixing up the classes. Spinning junkie? Try Zumba. Love yoga? Keep going, but add barre classes.
If you play skill sports like golf or tennis
You may be happy with your game as it is, but you can help your brain by signing up for lessons and working on your stroke. And keep playing new courses and new opponents.
Featured image: Kotelko switched to track and field at age 77 after she decided to give up softball. Photograph by Grant Harder