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Secrets of Successful Aging May Be Found in Senior Olympics Athletes

Armen Hareyan's picture

Successful Aging and Senior Olympics Games

The secrets of successful aging may be found among the nearly 10,400 senior athletes, all age 50 and up, traveling from all over the United States to Pittsburgh to compete in the 2005 Summer National Senior Games, The Senior Olympics, June 3 through June 18, say University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) researchers.

At the 2005 Summer Games, UPMC researchers are continuing their comprehensive health survey they began on senior athletes at the 2001 Summer Senior Olympics in Baton Rouge, La. "Our survey, which has produced a first-of-its-kind database of unique information on this particular population of older adults, has yielded many important insights into the lives of ordinary and elite active seniors who share a common belief in the importance of exercise and healthy lifestyles," said Vonda Wright, M.D., research coordinator at the 2005 Summer Senior Olympics and clinical instructor in the department of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The database has been used as a basis for developing five additional specific studies of athletes in the 2005 Summer Games.

Dr. Wright will present details of the 2001 survey results as well as new insights gained from her data analysis at a meeting of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging, an officially designated White House Conference on Aging event, 2:15 p.m., Friday, June 10 at the Four Points Sheraton in Warrendale, Pa., held in partnership with the Pittsburgh Local Organizing Committee (PLOC) of the 2005 Summer Games and the National Senior Games Association.

"A variety of medical research has shown the many positive effects of exercise on healthy aging. Perhaps the best examples are Senior Olympics athletes, who continue to exhibit high levels of mobility and independence as well as improved quality of life. We want to continue to learn as much as we can from these amazing senior athletes, who are the best of the best in their home states. We believe they represent the truest measure of physiological aging because generally their bodies have not been corrupted by factors like disuse and sedentary or negative lifestyle habits," Dr. Wright said.

The 2001 survey found that in general, Senior Olympians are in better physical, mental and emotional health than their sedentary peers. "Despite their remarkable athletic achievements, however, they are not completely immune to chronic illness, only better at handling it, and we want to know how they do it," said Dr. Wright.

"This research has become vitally important as our aging population continues to grow. There are 77 million baby boomers in this country who will be senior citizens in the next 10 years. About one-third of older adults have some form of immobility and loss of independence. If we don't find ways to keep ourselves healthy and independent longer, it will greatly impact our treatment, health care costs and quality of life," stressed Peter Z. Cohen, M.D., founding director of senior sports and fitness initiatives at UPMC, clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and chief of orthopaedic surgery at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. "We hope that what we are beginning to learn from our best senior athletes can be applied to the general population of older adults." Dr. Cohen also is co-chariman of the PLOC.

"It is not uncommon for Senior Olympics athletes to run, swim or throw faster than sedentary people 20 to 30 years their junior. Research has shown that seniors can make significant improvements in their physical and mental health by increasing their activity at any age," said Freddie Fu, M.D., professor and chairman of the department of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and PLOC co-chairman.

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"One astonishing finding in the 2001 survey was that more than 50 percent of the oldest female competitors, even at age 80, still had normal bone density, a dramatic contrast to the low bone density levels typically seen in older women," added Dr. Fu.

However, the researchers also found one trend that even the most highly functioning seniors in the 2001 survey had in common with the general senior population: significant declines in physical function around age 75. "We believe these declines involve three major factors: cognitive function, loss of lean muscle mass and the loss of bone mineral density," said Dr. Wright. "Therefore, the studies we are conducting on athletes at the 2005 Summer Games all focus on those three factors." The researchers will be looking at the effects of exercise on bone mineral density, lean muscle mass, neurocognitive function, rotator cuff injuries and body composition.

"We hope our investigations will help reveal more about physical-decline issues in Senior Olympians and help determine what interventions might be effective for seniors at all levels," Dr. Wright said. "Aging alone is not a reason for becoming inactive. Although chronic disease still exists in the Senior Olympian population, they maintain an active lifestyle and report a great sense of physical and mental well-being. As expected, physical performance declines gradually with age, but the tipping point for significant declines seems to center at around age 75. This has important implications for physicians and patients alike as we seek to prevent the balance, between senior independence and disability, from tipping toward disability," Dr. Wright explained.

The research has been supported by a grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation, and has been conducted in cooperation with the National Senior Games Association.

A Glimpse of UPMC's 2001 Summer Senior Olympian Survey Results:

  • A total of 2,599 athletes (1,351 men and 1,248 women) or 20 percent of all Senior Olympics participants completed comprehensive health surveys.
  • The average age was 67.76 years.
  • More than 90 percent were Caucasian; 70 percent were married; about 80 percent had completed some college education, and 32 percent held post-graduate degrees.
  • More than 40 percent of the seniors continued to work in jobs they described as moderately active while 46 percent were retired, not due to health reasons.
  • Many athletes reported a lifelong history of physical activity, including 95 percent participation in sports as teenagers and 85 percent as young adults.
  • Mental and physical health summary scores of the athletes were above the U.S. population average for this age group.
  • The three most reported health problems were low-back pain (25%), hypertension (23%) and knee osteoarthritis (15%). More than 16 percent reported having prior knee surgery; nearly 5 percent had had back surgery and 1 percent had had hip surgery.
  • Eighty-nine percent reported at least one musculoskeletal injury since age 50.
  • The four most frequently reported injuries were to the foot and ankle, knee, shoulder and lower back. Fifty-four percent were injured during competition and 36 percent during training.
  • The primary mechanism of injury was overuse (60%) and fall (23%). These resulted in muscle pulls followed by ligament tears, sprains and tendonitis. Most athletes self-treated with rest, ice, compression and elevation; one-third sought medical attention and 12 percent required surgery.

To learn more about the 2005 Summer National Senior Games, go to http://www.2005SeniorGames.org


PITTSBURGH, June 8 - http://newsbureau.upmc.com