When you think about track and field athletes, you might envision young, muscled (and highly decorated) competitors like Usain Bolt or Lolo Jones. That is, until you learn about the legendary Olga Kotelko, who passed away in 2014.
The former teacher and mother of two was a record-holding competitor in World Masters Athletics events well into her 90s. And don’t think she was just moseying along a track either. Kotelko competed in the high jump, long jump, javelin, discus, shotput and hammer events — amassing 750 gold medals.
Yet, the most remarkable thing about Olga wasn’t her body — it was her brain.
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In 2012, at age 93, Kotelko participated in a study comparing her brain to the brains of 58 other active women, ages 60 to 78 years old. Conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, participants underwent a battery of MRI brain scans and cognitive tests, in addition to a treadmill fitness test. The goal of these was to determine whether Kotelko’s late-life athletic feats (she didn’t get involved in sports until her 60s) had helped delay the effects of aging in her brain.
“During dinner after the long day of testing, I asked Olga if she was tired, and she replied, ‘I rarely get tired,’” study author Art Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, said in a press release. “The decades-younger graduate students who tested her, however, looked exhausted.”
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In a study published this week in the journal Neurocases, researchers showed that Kotelko’s time at the track paid off in a big way. Compared to the younger women, Kotelko’s white matter tracts (areas of the brain that help with reasoning, planning and self-control) were “remarkably intact,” according to researchers. Her brain also didn’t appear shrunken (a typical sign of aging), and she performed better on tests of cognition and memory than other women her own age.
“I think it’s very exciting to see someone who is highly functioning at 93, possessing numerous world records in the athletic field and actually having very high integrity in a brain region that is very sensitive to aging,” lead researcher Agnieszka Burzynska said.
In case you needed evidence, check out this video of Kotelko crushing it at her track workouts (and prepare to be seriously inspired).