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The science of aging

Across Canada, baby boomers are edging into their retirement years—and, given Quebec’s particular demographic make-up, la belle province is going to feel the impact of this shift particularly strongly. This looming reality has driven McGill researchers across every discipline to study what can be done to keep our older population healthy and happy.

One approach is to study extraordinary seniors to figure out what makes them tick. When Tanja Taivassalo, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, happened to see 91-year-old Olga Kotelko set eight world records at the 2009 World Masters Championships track and field competition in Finland, she knew she had to get the nonagenarian powerhouse into her lab at the Montreal Chest Institute.

“There’s no question Olga is remarkable,” says Taivassalo. “What we’re trying to understand is whether it’s her genes or how she’s been training that makes her remarkable. Was she born or was she made?”

The Amazing Olga

Olga Kotelko has visited McGill twice, most recently in October 2012, when she led a five-kilometre group run to the top of Mount-Royal. Researchers tested her aerobic capacity while she exercised and found that, although her ability to take in and consume oxygen was what one might predict for a 90-something endurance athlete (that is to say, it’s very good — and equivalent to that of a sedentary 80-year-old), it wasn’t off the charts. She does, however, seem to have exceptional muscle fibres that allow her to excel in power sports.

Russell Hepple, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education and the Department of Medicine (Critical Care Division), is doing an ongoing analysis of a muscle biopsy taken during Kotelko’s visit. Hepple doesn’t agree with the common belief that people preferentially lose type 2 muscle fibres (the fibres responsible for power and strength, as opposed to the aerobic-focused type 1 fibres) as they age. Olga Kotelko just might prove him right, “because she is, after all, a power athlete doing powerful things.”

Older, but stronger

As we age, we lose both the neurons that activate muscle fibres, as well as the nerve terminals connecting to muscles. Hepple’s team has new data, published in the journal PLoS One in early 2012 , revealing that once aging muscle atrophy becomes severe, almost all of the muscle atrophy occurs in denervated muscle fibres. “That’s a big finding,” he says, “because it means that understanding the basis for neuronal death is the key to preventing most of aging muscle atrophy. I’m interested in learning whether Olga, and other exceptional performing aging athletes, are protected from this neuronal death — and, just from looking at the size and shape of Olga’s muscle fibres, I already suspect that’s the case. If that’s true, the next question will be: Why?”  To dig further into this question, Taivassalo and Hepple have expanded their study of elite Masters track and field athletes over the age of 75 years to include 14 athletes.

Hepple adds that better protection from age-associated neuronal death may also explain Olga’s sharp wit: “So much for the stereotypical dumb jock!”