June 9, 2005
Scientists Eye Older Athletes for Insights
PITTSBURGH -- Plenty of research has been done on young athletes, but little is known about marathoners, swimmers and softball players over age 50. That's about to change.
Over the next several days at the Senior Olympics here, researchers plan to learn a lot from these aged physical specimens, perhaps gaining new insights into aging and exercise.Previous data from these older athletes has produced one dramatic finding: Most athletes decline slowly during the years past 50, but once they hit 75, the decline is sizable.
For example, the speed of one-mile runners fell about 2 percent each year from ages 50 to 75. Then from 75 to 85, their speeds dropped by about 7 percent a year, said Dr. Vonda Wright, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's department of orthopedic surgery and a research coordinator at the senior games.
That finding from the 2,599 athletes in the 2001 senior games is compatible with other studies that suggest that both athletic and sedentary people seem to hit some sort of wall when they reach the three-quarters-of-a-century mark.
But Wright and other UPMC researchers aren't sure why and hope the surveys and tests they collect from this year's senior Olympians will provide some insight. The athletes will be given a health questionnaire and tests on bone density, neurocognitive function, lean muscle mass and other issues.
There aren't many efforts at collecting data from senior athletes, despite the demographic's rapid growth, said Dr. Peter Z. Cohen, the founding director of UPMC's senior sports and fitness initiatives.
About 12 percent of Americans are age 65 or older, but they'll make up 21 percent of the population in 2050, according to the Census Bureau. In the next 10 years, 77 million baby boomers will be senior citizens, Cohen said.
"It's not sexy to study senior athletes, but it should be," Cohen said. "Seniors no longer want to just live longer, they want to live independently and live a more quality life."
Among the earlier findings on older athletes, their physical and mental health were significantly superior to sedentary people of the same age, the 2001 data showed.
Although senior athletes can't avoid chronic illness, they handle it better, Wright said.
None of this is a surprise to Elizabeth Koenemun, a 58-year-old who played with a Pittsburgh-area softball team during this year's summer games.
Koenemun has been active all her life - she once aspired to be a physical education teacher - and has found her athleticism has helped her during her career as a nurse.
"I know for a fact I can outlast and outplay co-workers who are half my age," she said.
On the Net:
The 2005 Summer National Senior Games - The Senior Olympics, http://www.2005seniorgames.org/