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Successful aging: What older athletes remind us about healthy longevity

Q The recent Australian Open tennis tournament was astounding. Roger Federer is 35, as is Serena Williams; her sister Venus is 36. That’s old for competitive and winning athletes. What can we learn about aging from their achievements? Will all of that activity give them a longer life?

— N.S.

A Dear N.S.:

There is much to learn from these exceptional athletes. The first is that age is a poor predictor of success, on the tennis court as well as at the workplace. The concept of being “too old” just doesn’t cut in anymore; neither does “act your age.” These are meaningless words in today’s environment.

Let’s take the sport of running. We used to believe that marathons were for young runners. Not true. The oldest runner in the 2016 New York Marathon was an 84-year-old man, and the oldest female runner was 88. Both completed the race in a little over seven hours. In a previous New York Marathon, 88 runners were 75 or older. And at 81 years, Marjorie Kagan ran the marathon for the first time.

The second thing we learn is that older adults are passionate about their sport and train to finish or win. Take a look at a fitness center and check out who is on the bike and treadmill. Competitive events taking place around the country reflect their desire and athletic abilities.

The Senior Olympics, which started in 1987, occurs once a year and draws athletes from around the country. Local communities are hosting senior games in areas such as Palm Springs, San Francisco, San Diego and Pasadena, to name a few. We also learn about the value of exercise and its relationship to the aging process. We know that with time, cells age. Almost any amount and type of physical activity typically will slow this normal aging process. An important task is to figure the age of a cell. Rather than relying on chronology, scientists are determining the cell’s age by how well it is functioning. One way is to measure the length of its telomeres.

Telomeres are tiny caps found on the end of DNA strands, similar to the plastic caps on the end of a shoelace. They protect the DNA from fraying and becoming shorter as the cell divides and replicates. Obesity, smoking, insomnia, diabetes and other aspects of health and life style may accelerate the cell’s aging. In such cases, cells are considered to age prematurely. Recent studies suggest that exercise may slow the fraying of these telomeres. Master athletes typically have longer telomeres than sedentary people of the same age.

Longer telomeres don’t necessarily mean one is in better health. They have been shown to be predictive of mortality; shorter telomeres mean shorter lives. It is unclear if younger people who exercise would show the same effect. The subject of longevity has many parts to it that have been addressed by S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. He studies ways to slow the aging process and was asked in an interview by Melissa Dahl of New York Magazine what he personally does to slow down aging in his own body and mind.

Here is his recipe:

• Choose long-lived parents; genetics are important.

• Exercise every day, noting that it’s like oil, lube and filter for your car. He adds that you don’t have to do it. But if you do, the machine operates better.

• Eat less and have smaller meals as a way to control insulin levels, which he believes is one of the big influencers on the rate we age.

• Have sex every day. He adds this might not make one live longer, but remember: Longevity is not about life extension, it’s about the journey along the way.

Our older athletes teach us to never underestimate one’s potential because of age, to recognize the passion, zeal and commitment that they “bring to the table” and that exercise is an important factor that likely influences longevity.

N.S., thank you for your good question. Let’s keep our telomeres long and keep moving.

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