Senior Olympic Games - Secrets of Successful Aging

Senior Olympic Games - Secrets of Successful Aging

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Learning the Secrets of Successful Aging


( This June, 11,000 athletes over the age of 50 will descend upon Pittsburgh for the Senior Olympics. Doctors and researchers at UPMC plan to take this opportunity to probe the secrets of successful aging from those who do it best.

Every two years the National Senior Games Association sponsors the Senior Games in a different U.S. city. Cities compete to host the games, just like the traditional Olympics. The games consist of 18 sports for athletes 50 and older, and it's not unusual for athletes to be in their 70s and 80s.

This year the event takes place in Pittsburgh from June 3 to 18. While events will be held at various places throughout the city, the Olympic Village will be located at the University of Pittsburgh's Peterson Event Center.

"People who are unfamiliar with the Senior Games assume that it's a slow-moving event," says Vonda Wright, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at UPMC. "That's not the case. These are very high functioning athletes who compete on the state level and qualify for nationals."

During the games, UPMC will lead a major research effort involving six separate studies to help unlock the keys to successful aging.

"Senior athletes represent the truest measure of physiologic aging, because their bodies generally have not been corrupted by factors like misuse and sedentary or negative lifestyle habits," says Dr. Wright. "These people are probably the most physically healthy individuals you could possibly find in this subject group. We want to find out as much as we can about them, and then apply what we learn about healthy aging to the general population."

UPMC researchers started their work at the 2001 games held in Baton Rouge, La. These studies resulted in interesting findings regarding bone density and physical performance after age 75.

The athletes competing in the Baton Rouge games had remarkable bone density even among the oldest female competitors with 50 percent of female competitors having normal bone density at age 80, a dramatic contrast to the low bone density levels typically seen in older women.

Researchers also studied the performance times of the athletes specifically how fast they ran the 100-yard dash over several years to determine at which point even the most active athletes begin to lose their physical capacity. Studies indicated that from age 50 to 75, there's a gradual decline in performance. Then at age 75, performance suddenly drops off the chart.

"It makes us ask the question:  If these healthy people have functional declines at 75, what does that mean for the rest of us who don't live such healthy lives?  And, what do we need to try to do as physicians to prevent that kind of decline in the general population?"  asks Dr. Wright.

The answer is especially significant given how quickly the aging population is growing. One of the major health concerns in the United States is how to take care of our aging population.

This year, researchers hope to build upon the knowledge they gained at the 1999 Senior Games. Researchers say there are three major reasons seniors lose their independence. These include sacropenia (loss of lean muscle mass), osteoporosis (bone density loss), and cognitive decline all of which will be the focus of six studies at the Senior Games.

Several studies already have indicated that good health is linked to regular exercise and proper diet. Dr. Wright hopes that the results of the research conducted this summer will be more detailed with specific emphasis on older adults. This will be the first time that researchers, especially in orthopaedics, have studied the way senior athletes live their daily lives how they eat and how they train to determine how to age successfully.

"It's important to remember that not all of these people are perfect physical specimens. More than 60 percent of them take medicine every day for chronic illnesses," says Dr. Wright. "It's not that they don't feel the effects of aging, they're just better at handling it. We hope to learn why and how they handle it better."

The studies The Senior Games athletes have the opportunity to sign up for any research study. According to Dr. Wright, most of the senior athletes get involved in research because they're so interested in their health and staying young. In fact, researchers had to turn interested participants away in 1999.

The research studies planned for the 2005 Senior Games include:
  • Health survey: This survey will examine the athlete's history, including his or her training, injury, and treatment background.  It also will ask general questions about the athlete's health.
  • Sacropenia:  During this study athletes will undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests to determine what percentage of their muscle mass is lean versus fat.  The difference in volume will be compared to similar studies of sedentary people.  Interested participants will have the opportunity to have an MRI of their leg.  Leg muscle strength will also be tested.  
  • Bone density:  The bone density test helps determine a person's risk for osteoporosis.
  • Neurocognitive test:  During this study, researchers will use a tool, called ImPACT, to identify neurocognitive changes with aging.  Professional athletes take this test at the beginning of each season, and again any time they have a collision on the playing field.  Players are not permitted to return to play until ImPACT shows that their brains have fully recovered from the collision.  Researchers for the Senior Games will use ImPACT to compare the senior athletes to sedentary people of the same age.  The results also will be compared to younger athletes to see how the brain ages if we stay active.
  • Rotator cuff study:  Research indicates that by age 70, most people have experienced a tear of their rotator cuff, even though not all of them will experience pain.  Through the rotator cuff study, which will be conducted via ultrasound, researchers hope to learn more about why some tears become symptomatic, while others do not.
  • Body composition study:  Osteoporosis researchers at UPMC will use a DEXA scanner to identify where fat is deposited in the senior athletes' bodies.  The results of the research conducted at the Senior Games will be released around this time next year, and Dr. Wright is confident that the research will provide insight on the aging process.

"There are 77 million baby boomers in this country who are going to be senior citizens in the next 10 years," she says. "If we don't find a way to keep them healthy longer, it will seriously impact their treatment, health care costs, and quality of life."

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