For most of her days, Olga Kotelko led a relatively ordinary life. One of 11 children born to parents who had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine, she grew up working on the family farm and eventually became a teacher. She married, divorced and then raised two daughters as a single mother. When she retired from teaching, she started playing coed softball. She had played baseball as a girl and enjoyed it, so she ran back on the playing field.
But the competitive bug really took hold. She played ball for several years until she had a collision with a male player easily twice her size, or so the story goes. When a friend offered a safer suggestion, Kotelko took up track and field — at 77.
Within years, this grandmother known for gardening, volunteering and baking a mean pirogi was breaking records on the track. She became one of the most successful track and field athletes in history, winning more than 750 gold medals and more than 30 world records.
Learning more about a remarkable athlete
Journalist Bruce Grierson met this incredible woman when he was a writer for The New York Times. Then 91, Kotelko's physiology and muscle tissue were being studied by doctors at the Montreal Chest Institute at McGill University.
“How old do you feel?” Grierson asked her.
“Well, I still have the energy I had at 50,” she said. “More. Where is it coming from? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a mystery even to me.”
Grierson asked her what she thought was the secret to her longevity and health.
"I try to sustain and nourish my good health as best I know how," she told him. "The energy that I seem to exert in my athletic endeavors and daily life helps me to achieve the rewards I treasure the most ... I am an optimist and I take the most hopeful view of matters. I do things that make me happy. I do things that make others happy. And my advice is age gracefully."
He was so captivated by the nonagenarian that he set out to write a book about her, eventually publishing "What Makes Olga Run?"
Studying Olga's brain
Grierson asked scientists at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois to study Kotelko's brain when she was 93. Neuroscientist and psychologist Aga Burzynska was a postdoctoral researcher at the Beckman Institute at the time. She started not long after Kotelko had come in for a battery of cognitive tests, including processing speed, memory and problem-solving skills. She also sat for an MRI scan of her brain.
"Soon after I arrived, they said, 'We have this data, are you interested to take a look?'" Burzynska tells MNN. "I was super-interested. I started comparing her brain to the brains that we had from younger sample. Olga was older than the older adults we normally studied."
As we age, Burzynska explains, the space between the brain and the skull becomes larger as the brain naturally shrinks over time.
"Honestly, I never would have judged Olga's brain as the brain of a 93-year-old person," says Burzynska, who is now an assistant professor at Colorado State University. "Her brain didn’t look shrunk or shrinking at all."
Kotelko's brain did, however, have small lesions, which are changes that appear in the white matter in the brain, sometimes attributed to silent strokes or other vascular events in the brain. The changes are very prevalent after age 65, Burzynska says, although typically linked to high blood pressure, which Kotelko didn't have.
But what Burzynska and her team were particularly interested in was the white matter itself in Kotelko's brain.
White matter is composed of cells called axons that connect together to allow brain communication and myelin, a fatty insulator that helps nerve signals travel quickly and efficiently. White matter allows the brain to operate like it's supposed to and often deteriorates with age.
Burzynska studied Kotelko's scans and found that the white matter in her corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers joining the brain's two hemispheres, was very high. It was in better shape, says Burzynska, than in women 20 years younger.
"We tried to explain it. If she's so good right now, how would her white matter have looked 20 years ago?"
The secret of her success
It's easy to want to chalk up Kotelko's amazing health to exercise. But it's more than just moving, Burzynska says. It's a combination of several factors.
"Assuming she was not superhuman to start with, the good shape of her brain was a mixture of successful aging (she was never treated for cancer or hypertension) so she was really healthy and had no serious diseases. And because of this, she could be really active socially and cognitively, so her life was really exciting and she would rarely sit and watch TV," Burzynska says.
"Her above-average excellent brain outcomes we hypothesized were a mixture of successful aging and increased physical activity in old age."
Interestingly, part of Kotelko's success may have been that she took on the challenge of learning the intricacies of a new sport with complex movements to learn and perfect. It's different than just walking the same route every day or swimming laps in a pool.
"In science, we try to understand the different mechanisms of different life factors. We agree life is so complex that most of those things are best if they're combined. It's called enriched environments and they promote physical activities, cognitive stimulations and social contact," Burzynska says. "Olga had the personality or she put herself in this exciting environment. She trained, traveled, interacted with people … I think all of this matters. I think doing it this way matters more than just locking yourself in a room and running for half an hour."
A study about learning to dance, Burzynska says, backs up that point, showing promising results. Participants have cognitive, social and physical stimulation. They have to learn steps, relate to their partner and they get exercise.
Learning from Olga
Kotelko passed away in June 2014 at age 95. At the time of her death, she held every track and field record she attempted for her age group and had written her autobiography. She was still reading the daily paper, doing puzzles and singing in her church choir.
Burzynska and her team published their research in the journal Neurocase the following year.
Although she only met Kotelko via her MRI scans and never in person, Burzynska says it's easy to take lessons from the groundbreaking woman she studied for so long.
"Try to stay curious about the world because clearly it's possible to start great things even in one's 70s, and it's important that people have something they enjoy doing that makes them passionate that they can keep doing over the years," she says.
"I heard one scientist say we don’t know yet how much being very fit and exercising can make a difference in middle adulthood, but it's important to make the habit. It's important to have an activity we enjoy doing and want to stick with. I think it's also important when it's in nature because being outside is important."
Kotelko's optimistic attitude is also inspirational, Burzynska says.
"Personally, I learned that I can push myself more, that a lot of what we do and how we live is attitude. Olga also had a lot of hardships in her life, like everybody, and it's impressive to see people who don’t get stuck on obstacles. She really had joy. I became more optimistic. I think reaching retirement age won't be a dead end; I think it will be a new beginning."