In 2012, Canadian masters track and field athlete Olga Kotelko, at 93, visited the University of Illinois where she was given an in-depth brain examination.
Kotelko, who passed away in the summer of 2014, was of interest to researchers because of her unique position as a highly-active nonagenarian. Researchers were interested in knowing if her regular exercise, which had brought her 30 masters records in track and field, had slowed any of the effects aging has on the brain.
Because there was no one to compare Kotelko’s results with, she was compared with a group of 58 women between 60 and 78 to see if her exercise had helped her cognitive functions at all.
“Although it is tough to generalize from a single study participant to other individuals, we felt very fortunate to have an opportunity to study the brain and cognition of such an exceptional individual,” said Art Kramer, an author of the new study and Beckman Institute director, where the study was done, in a press release.
What the researchers found (though, as Kramer notes, you can’t draw any reliable conclusions from a single-participant study) was that, though she did not preform as well as the younger women, Kotelko’s brain did seem to be in better shape than other women her age.
“She was quicker at responding to the cognitive tasks than other adults in their 90s,” said Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the study. “And on memory, she was much better than they were.”
Kotelko’s hippocampus, which plays an important role in human memory and shrinks with age, was also more shrunken than the younger women, but not to the extent usually seen in nonagenarians.
The study was published in the journal Neurocase.