Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Elite Octogenarians!

A number of recent posts have focused on what might be called the “geopolitics” of healthcare and the Federal budget in the United States and offered analysis and ideas about how things like sin taxes and insurance plans might incent healthier behavior.   Today I want to get back to human performance and elite athletes, topics that were covered in detail last summer during the Olympics.   The twist here is that I want to talk about elite 80 year old endurance athletes.

In an amazing scientific paper, scientists from Ball State University in Indiana, along with collaborators in Sweden, found 9 elite cross-country skiers (including an Olympic Champion) who had remained highly physically active and trained throughout life.   On average these individuals had VO2  max values of 38 ml/kg/min.  This is a value similar to that seen in sedentary men in their teens and twenties.   It is also a value about 80% higher than the values seen in sedentary 80 year olds.   VO2 max is a marker of the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to exercising muscles and also the ability of the muscles to use oxygen.   A simple analogy is that VO2 max somewhat similar to a measure of horse power for a car.   With more horse power you can do more!

Below is a figure from the paper.   The key point is that a VO2 max value of about 15 is required to be functionally independent and that the untrained octogenarians were likely drifting downward toward that value, while the athletes had plenty of reserve and extra capacity.    Another key point that my colleague Jill Barnes and I made in an editorial on this paper is that while the high values in the athlete’s likely had a component of “natural ability” or “genetics”, it should be possible for highly active regular guys in their late 70s and 80s to have VO2 max in the high 20s or lower 30s, or about twice the value needed to remain independent.

This paper raises a lot of questions about things like what kept these men motivated to stay so active throughout life.  It will also be interesting to see what the data in older women looks like as more women participate in endurance sports throughout life.    While there is no fountain of youth, the data in these older elite athletes is just another example of what lifelong exercise can do.



2 Responses to “Elite Octogenarians!”

  1. December 3rd, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Michele says:

    Especially important and timely considering all of the recent discussion regarding ‘dangers’ of endurance exercise and aging.

  2. December 10th, 2012 at 6:37 am

    Creativity and Longevity? | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] more open and creative to promote healthy aging.   Last week I reviewed the data on what happens when elite endurance athletes remain highly active into their 80s, and in earlier posts I have reviewed the positive effects of physical activity and exercise on […]

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