Clearing Age Hurdles.

In the summer of 2012, Olga Kotelko, a 93-year-old Canadian track-and-field athlete with more than 30 world records in her age group, visited the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois and submitted to an in-depth analysis of her brain.

The resulting study, reported in the journal Neurocase, offers a surprising first glimpse of the potential effects of exercise on the brains and cognitive abilities of the “oldest old.”

A retired teacher and mother of two, Kotelko started her athletic career late in life. She began with slow-pitch softball at age 65, and at 77 switched to track-and-field events, later enlisting the help of a coach. By the time of her death in 2014, she had won 750 gold medals in her age group in World Masters Athletics events, and had set new world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, high jump, long jump, javelin, discus, shot put and hammer events.

Lacking a peer group of reasonably healthy nonagenarians for comparison, the researchers decided to compare Kotelko with a group of 58 healthy, low-active women who were 60 to 78 years old.

“In our studies, we often collect data from adults who are between 60 and 80 years old, and we have trouble finding participants who are 75 to 80 and relatively healthy,” said U. of I. postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the new analysis. As a result, very few studies have focused on the “oldest old,” she said.

“Although it is tough to generalize from a single study participant to other individuals, we felt very fortunate to have an opportunity to study the brain and cognition of such an exceptional individual,” said Beckman Institute director Art Kramer, an author of the new study.

In one long day at the lab, Kotelko submitted to an MRI brain scan, a cardiorespiratory fitness test on a treadmill and cognitive tests. (All of the data are available at XNAT, a public repository; Kotelko and her daughter agreed to make her data public.)

“During dinner after the long day of testing, I asked Olga if she was tired, and she replied, ‘I rarely get tired,'” Kramer said. “The decades-younger graduate students who tested her, however, looked exhausted.”

The women in the comparison group underwent the same tests and scans.

The researchers wanted to determine whether Kotelko’s late-life athleticism had slowed, or perhaps even reversed, some of the processes of aging in her brain.

“In general, the brain shrinks with age,” Burzynska said. Fluid-filled spaces appear between the brain and the skull, and the ventricles enlarge, she said.

“The cortex, the outermost layer of cells where all of our thinking takes place, that also gets thinner,” she said. White matter tracts, which carry nerve signals between brain regions, tend to lose their structural and functional integrity over time. And the hippocampus, which is important to memory, usually shrinks with age, Burzynska said.

Previous studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can enhance cognition and boost brain function in older adults, and can even increase the volume of specific brain regions like the hippocampus, Kramer said.

Kotelko’s brain offered some intriguing first clues about the potentially beneficial effects of her active lifestyle.

“Her brain did not seem to be, in general, very shrunken, and her ventricles did not seem to be enlarged,” Burzynska said. On the other hand, she had obvious signs of advanced aging in the white-matter tracts of some brain regions, Burzynska said.

“Olga had quite a lot of white-matter hyperintensities, which are markers of unspecific white-matter damage,” she said. These are common in people over age 65, and tend to increase with age, she said.

As a whole, however, Kotelko’s white-matter tracts were remarkably intact, comparable to those of women decades younger, the researchers found. And the white-matter tracts in one region of her brain, the genu of the corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres at the very front of the brain, were in great shape, Burzynska said.

“Olga had the highest measure of white-matter integrity in that part of the brain, even higher than those younger females, which was very surprising,” she said.

These white-matter tracts serve a region of the brain that is engaged in tasks, such as reasoning, planning and self-control, that are known to decline fastest in aging, Burzynska said.

Kotelko performed worse on cognitive tests than the younger women, but better than other adults her own age who had been tested in an independent study.

“She was quicker at responding to the cognitive tasks than other adults in their 90s,” Burzynska said. “And on memory, she was much better than they were.”

Her hippocampus was smaller than the younger participants, but larger than expected given her age, Burzynska said.

The new findings are only a very limited, first step toward calculating the effects of exercise on cognition in the oldest old, she said.

“We have only one Olga and only at one time point, so it’s difficult to arrive at very solid conclusions,” Burzynska said. “But I think it’s very exciting to see someone who is highly functioning at 93, possessing numerous world records in the athletic field and actually having very high integrity in a brain region that is very sensitive to aging. I hope it will encourage people that even as we age, our brains remain plastic. We have more and more evidence for that.”

Watch a video of her accomplishments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NO33wpkVFo



2 thoughts on “Olga

  1. I feel so grateful to have stumbled upon your blog & constantly enjoy your explorations & reports. It is a privilege to read your presentations & discoveries.
    As an, um, “oldish” lady myself, mountain climber & lifelong soccer player, Olga Kotelko brings me hope! She lived in Vancouver and was known to some of my older pals here in Seattle.
    Olga, her brawn and her brain raise so many questions. Regular, intense exercise seems to preserve the integrity in the white-matter tracts–& especially of the temporal lobes, & the temporal lobes are key in memory, language, & utilization of visual and auditory data.
    But what are the intermediate steps? How many could there possibly be? It seems overwhelming just to pick apart the forces connecting exercise as a mechanism to keep the brain more “sturdy”. Skipping past FNDC5, irisin, & jumping directly: studies seem strong that exercise also builds BDNF. BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is not some magic endorphin but instead a very complex protein that is impacted by regular exercise & other forces. Ignoring, for a moment that my leapfrogging to exercise, then BDNF is isolating very far down one trail indeed but I can’t be too obnoxious here with word count. Likely the smarter readers are going to shame me that I am on a false trail & I believe it because, gosh, it is hard to keep up on anything here.

    But I fixated, because I am good at that & wondered, what else did Olga have going for her? She is survived by one daughter but her other daughter Nadine died before her and all hr 10 siblings died before her too. Besides exercise what else gave Olga an edge? Was it also the Sudoku that she loved?
    Could Olga have had certain genetic variables, for example, that set her up for success?
    Increasingly, studies support BDNF (even though it is not a simple graph of more is better) while acknowledging there are many neurotropins at play.

    SNP rs6265 comes as a Val/Val formation (also known as C/C, or Val66Val or G/G just to confuse us) Those Val66Val SNP variation on the 11th chromosome have higher levels of BDNF than heterozygous people or those who are Met/Met (Er, yes or T/T, G/G. Gosh are geneticists a bit wicked or is it just me?) Val66Val may—or at least in some studies– have a better preserved/larger hippocampus too.
    Another “BDNF” SNP (among many) is rs56164415 with G/G being a promoter of BDNF. Both of these variants described also impact sleep/ deep sleep.
    Could the mechanism be then—imagining Olga again—be that she had these genes (Yes, I am going quite far afield and amazed if you are still following!)
    Val66Val & thus genetically different sleep too as predicted: more slow wave sleep with Rs 6265 C,G,Val/C.G,Val & more alpha waves, less frontal beta waves. We know sleep is critical in preserving cognition.

    “Who let her in?” you are saying now “This crazy long winded commenter?”
    I am not trying to complain of all these variables: the ones above, the ones we have learned, the ones we don’t know.
    I am delighted! What an exciting time to be alive!
    Aren’t you at least curious about your own genome? Didn’t you drag your dull results over to Promethease, to Interpretome, etc?

    Doesn’t Olga tell us to get moving anyway?
    And this damn BDNF—though confusing and much more complicated than I jumbled here….at least the so many components are reasonable. Besides exercise—no sugars, weight loss, social interactions. Maybe curcumin, resveratrol, Omege 3 all try to push in (and see how Vitamin D gets in here again? How friendly!) Ampakines, et al are explored for their aging brain reversal ability. Fascintaing.
    I am not trying to impale profound science onto a diet, supplement & medicine to do list but Olga Kotelko is opening the door beyond how aging with any thoughts still in our heads.
    This research splays across happiness and grief for all ages. Genetic relations, BNFD, exercise also relates to depression—who gets it– and who can’t get rid of it. Why SSRI’s work for some & but not others. The rS6265–Val66Val question I pondered of Olga—(This SNP type is also known for athletic ability, or at least better motor skills which is why I perseverated) is also a marker of those, if depressed, are less likely to respond to traditional antidepressants. And a marker that a newer player may help. Ketamine—for a decade now carefully explored as a novel antidepressant– -increases in BDNF are necessary to the antidepressant effects of intravenous ketamine.

    How can you not be thrilled when all of the research starts orbiting around many questions at once? Even someone as simple brained as me, is forced to notice and has no idea where it all shall land?
    Finally, one also wonders about the calm way Olga handled stress with which she was well acquainted. She believed it was her cheerful demander that helped her age well and was known for her calm, good humor, & positivity. Here echoes the fascinating research supporting the benefits this nature in aging and cognition. For all I know, maybe exercise just helped her destress. ( Grin)

    When Olga was 6 weeks old tucked in the back of a rowdy crew, heading in the sleigh for her baptism to the local Ukrainian Catholic church , she fell out & wasn’t missed for a mile. That is how it is when you are the 7th of 11 children in rural Saskatoon. She seemed none the worse & grew up managing a tough life as a hard working farm child, later schoolteacher, a single mother, and a woman who would not stay with an unfaithful husband. She left him, and worked while raising two girls—while playing sports.
    Thanks again
    Maybeth Lambe

    • William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway. “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

      Evidenced by my now dog-eared medical dictionary, I think it a safe bet to say that you are not genetically related to Hemingway.

      Keeping up with the abbreviations and acronyms and then the complex network of variables that you describe, convinced me I wouldn’t stand a chance as a juggler of any note, lest all the juggled concepts lay in a heap before me, for sorting out mañana.

      Thanks for your further and enlightening Olga moments. Maybe her “quiet time” in the snow waiting for some-one to notice she was missing, prepared her for life’s imperfect nurturing. Canadians might be tough, but Ukrainians emigrated there to show the locals what tough really means.

      I hope that you keep up the mountain climbing and soccer. As for me I will maintain my Sudoku challenges. Let us self experiment as to who benefits most from Olga’s “secrets”!

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