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Inside the Brain of a 90-year-old Athlete

Olga Kotelko took up track and field at 77, and never looked back.

One of 11 children born to Ukrainian immigrants in Canada, Olga grew up working on the family farm, then eventually became a teacher.

After retiring, she took up co-ed softball as a hobby but moved on to track and field at 77 after a collision with a male player. She went on to become one of the most successful masters track and field athletes in history, winning over 750 gold medals and holding more than 30 world records in her age category at the Masters competition.

Scientists were intrigued by Olga's level of fitness at her age. At 91, her physiology and muscle tissue were studied by doctors at the Montreal Chest Institute at McGill University then at 93, her brain was looked at by neuroscientists at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois.

As we age the space between the brain and the skull becomes larger, as the brain naturally shrinks over time. But the results found that Olga’s brain had not shrunk, and didn't appear to be in the process of shrinking at all! She also had a high amount of ‘white matter’ which is what helps nerve signals travel quickly and efficiently, which usually deteriorates with age.

Generally, Olga's scans showed a brain in better shape than women who were 20 years younger.

The doctors say her success comes from a mixture of successful ageing and increased physical activity in her later years. Especially after taking up a new sport and having to perfect all the complex movements, rather than just walking the same route every day. Her personality was also very out there; she trained, travelled, did puzzles and interacted with people which helped stimulate her brain.

Olga died in 2014, aged 95 of an intracranial haemorrhage. She held every track and field record she attempted for her age group.

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