Age-Defying Athletes May Provide Clues For The Rest Of Us

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 7:10 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So in the world of elite sports, a top athlete's peak years traditionally are late 20s, maybe early 30s. More and more though, older athletes are extending that window of success, and that means a couple things. We get to watch our favorite athletes longer, and that longevity may provide clues about exercise and health for the rest of us. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Seems like everywhere you turn these days, older elite athletes are not acting their age.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: The 43-year-old goes deep. Ichiro gives Miami a 6-3 lead.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Game set and match, Federer.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: That's it. Venus Williams to the U.S. Open Semifinals.

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TOM BRADY: You know, I don't feel 39. I - I hang out with a bunch of 20-year-olds so that makes you feel pretty young.

GOLDMAN: Tom Brady, now 40, still is the gold standard for NFL quarterbacks. Late-30-something tennis stars Venus Williams and Roger Federer had major championship success this year. And baseball star Ichiro says he wants to play into his 50s. This isn't new. There's a scattering of aging outliers throughout sports history, but there's a bunch now, says Dr. Michael Joyner. He studies exercise physiology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

MICHAEL JOYNER: Better training, people taking better care of themselves, better sports medicine and these tremendous financial incentives that these individuals now have, you're seeing people stick with it longer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Five seconds then we're moving up to 95 watts. Keep it up, Cathy. Looking good.

GOLDMAN: As far as bike rides go, this one looks really uncomfortable. Seventy-four-year-old Cathy Primmer is on a stationary bike in a lab at Ball State University in Indiana. She has wires coming from a heart monitor on her chest. She's got a big plastic tube in her mouth measuring oxygen coming in, carbon dioxide going out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice job, Cathy. Keep it up.

GOLDMAN: Cathy Primmer is an elite athlete you've probably never heard of unless you follow women's track and field in the 70 to 74 division. Primmer has competed nationally and internationally as a sprinter in the 400 meters and high jumper. Scott Trappe runs the Ball State Human Performance Lab where Primmer has come in several times for cardiovascular and other kinds of testing.

SCOTT TRAPPE: Cathy is 74 years old biologically, but physiologically her data looks more like about a 35-year-old.

GOLDMAN: When she's not teaching PE at Ball State full time, Primmer is running on a track, cycling, doing hill sprints, lifting weights three times a week. Sitting across from her, I put my arm up, elbow on the table. She takes the cue, does the same. We lock hands.

That's strong.

CATHY PRIMMER: Aren't they? I have a wimpy grip.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, but - we're not really arm wrestling, but I have a feeling if we did that you would...

PRIMMER: I doubt it.

GOLDMAN: ...You would take me down.

PRIMMER: I doubt it.

GOLDMAN: Impressive at 74, Cathy Primmer had an unremarkable life when it came to sport. She was a dancer as a kid. When she got older, family and work became priorities. Then in her late 30s, she started distance running with her husband. She got the chance to run a relay race, a once-around-the-track sprint.

PRIMMER: It was fun, and I did all right.

GOLDMAN: She doesn't have the support staff or guarantee of riches, but Cathy Primmer shares some of the basics with the older elite athletes grabbing headlines - a smart diet, no smoking, activity every day. This is nothing new. What potentially is new? Information unearthed in an upcoming deep-dive into the science of exercise. The National Institutes of Health is putting up $170 million over five years in the biggest study to date of how physical activity improves health and prevents disease. Ball State's Scott Trappe is leading part of the study.

TRAPPE: This is to look at the molecular underpinnings of exercise. We know exercise provides good health benefits, but it's still a bit of mystery of what the molecules are and how this actually works.

GOLDMAN: Understanding this could lend support to the theory that exercise truly is potent medicine. What is understood by athletes from Tom Brady to Cathy Primmer is that exercise can slow the aging process and maybe win you a trophy or two. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.