In the summer of 2012, Olga Kotelko, a 93-year-old Canadian track-and-field athlete with more than 30 world records in her age group, visited the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois and submitted to an in-depth analysis of her brain.

The resulting study, reported in the journal Neurocase, offers a surprising first glimpse of the potential effects of exercise on the brains and cognitive abilities of the “oldest old.”

A retired teacher and mother of two, Kotelko started her athletic career late in life. She began with slow-pitch softball at age 65, and at 77 switched to track-and-field events, later enlisting the help of a coach. By the time of her death in 2014, she had won 750 gold medals in her age group in World Masters Athletics events, and had set new world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, high jump, long jump, javelin, discus, shot put and hammer events. 

Lacking a peer group of reasonably healthy nonagenarians for comparison, the researchers decided to compare Kotelko with a group of 58 healthy, low-active women who were 60 to 78 years old.

“In our studies, we often collect data from adults who are between 60 and 80 years old, and we have trouble finding participants who are 75 to 80 and relatively healthy,” said U. of I. postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the new analysis. As a result, very few studies have focused on the “oldest old,” she said.

“Although it is tough to generalize…

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