'What Makes Olga Run': Tapping into the health secrets of a 94-year-old athlete

Jan. 20, 2014 at 7:13 AM ET

Studying the remarkable story of 94-year-old track star Olga Kotelko, Bruce Grierson explores her traits and practices to learn more about the manifestations of age and how to maximize your body's potential. Here's an expert.

Rust Never Sleeps

'What Makes Olga Run'
Henry Holt and Co.

To grasp why Olga is apparently aging more slowly than usual, it helps to think hard about what aging actually is—and why it happens. After all, we need to die, but it’s by no means obvious why we need to get dead, incrementally, the way we do.

Turns out, aging is a tricky thing to study. Scientists have taken several approaches.

The best one is just to wait. Start a study with kids or young adults and then follow them through the journey, quizzing and poking them every few years and record the changes as they approach their end. And indeed, we now have longitudinal data from people over seven decades of their life.

If researchers can’t wait, they look for ways to cheat by speeding up time. They observe the body in extreme environments that produce symptoms that mimic age-related decline. Scientists have trekked to Everest base camp and lower-earth orbit, and watched hypoxia and weightlessness do its corrosive work on the cells and bones of climbers and astronauts. They’ve studied people suffering diseases whose symptoms look like time-lapse aging.

And what, after all this spadework, can we conclude?

There are competing theories about what’s actually happening when we age.

We’re rusting. Humdrum daily metabolism generates cellular garbage until the janitorial staff can’t mop it up fast enough. Oxidative damage ensues, along with inflammation in every cell, until something important fails or a chronic disease emerges.

We’re timing out. Nature planned for our obsolescence. It put a limit on how many times our cells can safely divide. After reaching that number our chromosomes start sticking together, DNA is damaged, and the body sends a suicide order to put an end to the whole failing enterprise, right on cue.

We’re borrowing from our future to pay for our youth. Aging, in this scheme, is a devil’s bargain. Some genes that help us to be strong and fertile in early life turn destructive beyond our reproductive years, when nature decides we are now of best use as mulch.

There are other theories, too. None of them has been scientifically proven. All we know is that we slide gradually downhill, and it’s a lot easier to speed up the descent than to slow it down. But some people—such as Olga—seem to have acquired better brakes. Something is helping Olga. Something is protecting her mitochondria or her chromosome-shielding telomeres, or boosting her immune system, or suppressing inflammation, or repairing DNA mutations, or keeping her cell membranes supple. Perhaps part of what’s protecting her is her own mind. That is, she is refusing to become a wizened little old lady at the normal rate because she simply does not believe she is one.


The “Super Senior” Advantage

On a bright May day in 2012, Olga and I pulled up in front of the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver. “I’m quite familiar with this place,” Olga said. In the late 1990s, she used to drive Nadine, the eldest of her two daughters, here for treatment, after Nadine was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 53. Nadine was a schoolteacher like her mom. One of the world’s best specialists in that discipline oversaw Nadine’s care, but he couldn’t save her. Only recently has Olga been able to come back to this neighborhood without difficulty. “Life goes on,” she said as the doors whispered open.

Today’s task was happier. Olga was participating in geneticist Angela Brooks-Wilson’s Healthy Aging Study—an investigation of more than five hundred people dubbed “Super Seniors.”

If you’re a Super Senior, you are over 85 with a clean bill of health. You have run between the raindrops, diseasewise. You have escaped the “Big Five” killers: cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and pulmonary disease. You’re rare: only about 2 percent of all 85-year-olds can make this claim. (The average 75-year-old suffers from three chronic medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) But having reached this point, paradoxically, your odds of staying free and clear are good. Beyond this age the death rate plateaus and actually starts declining—possibly because the people left standing are the cream of the species.

Brooks-Wilson and study coordinator Johanna Schuetz toured us around the facility. Olga took Schuetz’s arm, not for support but for connection. We passed grad students loading centrifuges. Big white freezers were jammed into every nook. The freezers hold ten thousand or so DNA samples, which will remain on ice until questions scientists never thought to ask suddenly seem like promising leads.

“Your DNA is, by definition, a good sequence,” Brooks-Wilson told Olga. “Whatever you have is compatible with a healthy life.” Olga’s genetic material would be compared to that of a randomly picked control group of people around my age. People who are, as Brooks-Wilson puts it, “at that stage of life before the tough stuff starts.”

The analysis will zero in on about 1 percent of Olga’s genome—carefully selected parts of the DNA thought to be functionally important. Those million or so “exons” tell a kind of CliffsNotes version of a person’s genetic story. Computers in the Cancer Agency will look for patterns of single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced “snips”)—small genetic changes—that occur more frequently in Super Seniors, and so may confer some protective advantage. (In the very, very old, the role of genetics rises. Scientists connected with the New England Centenarian Study now claim they can predict if a kid will live to age 100 from his DNA sample alone, with 61 percent accuracy.) And while very few traits or diseases can be explained by the presence or absence of a particular SNP, some can, and are.

“We think longevity is probably seventy to seventy-five percent lifestyle,” Brooks-Wilson said. That benchmark number comes from a study of nearly three thousand Danish twins drawn from the general population. That means, for the vast majority of us, roughly a quarter of healthy aging is about the protection you luckily inherited, and three-quarters is how you played the hand you were dealt.

People who roar into their 90s and 100s very often had long-lived parents. (When Brooks-Wilson surveyed the ages of the parents of her Super Seniors, she found they lived fifteen years longer than average.) But Olga doesn’t necessarily have that pedigree. Her mother, Anna, did live to a ripe old age: she died at 85 after a bout of pneumonia. But her father, Wasyl, died at 74 (also of pneumonia). Her maternal granddad, Michaylo, died at 82. Her paternal grandfather, Stephan, was 79. Her maternal grandmother, Hafia, was 63. Her paternal grandmother, Anastazia, was 62. Among her siblings Olga is by far the longest lived. She is the last alive among eleven kids, even though she was tucked in the middle, with four older siblings. None of the siblings was remotely as active in adulthood as she.

Olga’s genome could reveal secrets that will benefit others down the road, in ways that are hard to predict.

In the meantime, we decided to throw our curiosity a bone. We sent for a couple of kits from a consumer genomics lab—one for Olga and one for me. When they arrived, we met for lunch in the cafeteria of the seniors’ center near her home. I ripped open the packaging and placed on the table two vials for saliva samples.

The human genome was not part of the curriculum when Olga started teaching science in the 1940s. Body science was lumped into the hopper of “health.” Back then, the nature versus nurture debate was simpler. Heritable traits largely determined who we are: that’s Olga’s remembrance of the received wisdom. Now we appreciate how genes and environment are complicatedly intertwined. Our DNA is not so much a blueprint as a starting point; it contains a staggering number of switches that could go either way. Everything significant that happens to us potentially alters gene expression: that claim becomes more defensible by the day. If it proves true, then meeting Olga has redefined me.

Genetic profiling thus must be taken with a pretty big grain of salt. Even when a scenario screams “heritability,” the picture is generally more complicated. In his book The Sports Gene, David Epstein tells of a group of elite marathoners from Kenya’s Rift Valley—a cohort so gifted that it can be discouraging for other runners to face them in meets. The feeling among some is that there’s just no beating the Kalenjin aces, no matter how hard you train.

But while it’s true that the Kalenjin have physiological advantages that make them ideally suited to distance running—including ultralight, long-limbed frames that shed heat, narrow pelvises that reduce compression of the hip joints, and super-skinny lower legs with calves snugged up close to the knee, which amounts to real energy savings over the long haul—it’s not fair to chalk up their dominance solely to superior DNA. The Kalenjin are deeply committed to distance running, almost from the time they can walk. And the elites have a work ethic few rivals can match. Moreover, inside those thoroughbred bodies, attributes that look like genetic supercharging are in fact environmental adaptations. The thin air of the Kenyan highlands triggers the making of more red blood cells to ship oxygen to the muscles. The world-beating Kalenjins, then, are a paean to nature and nurture, “a combination of physiological advantages and a unique crucible in which to develop them,” says Epstein.

Genetic testing can’t predict who among us has the royal jelly to “be all we can be.” The best it can do is spell out your destiny in terms of probabilities. Certainty is a mirage. Then again, we weren’t looking for certainty: just clues.

Olga popped the top on her vial. At the next table, a gentleman in a tweed jacket, perhaps fearing the government was conducting some shadowy eugenics project, watched with curiosity bordering on alarm. Then we packed up our captured saliva and sent it off to California.

Reprinted from What Makes Olga Run by Bruce Grierson by arrangement with Henry Holt & Co. Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Grierson