The Fountain of Youth is within ourselves.
That is the resounding message from a major new study out of Yale University that shows that older top finishers in the New York City Marathon have significantly improved their performances over the past couple of decades. In fact, they've done better than younger runners at improving individual performances, and that's especially true for females.
The bottom line of the study is this: Don't wait for a medical breakthrough if you want to reduce the ravenous effects of aging. Instead, get off your rear end and hit the bricks.
"Our data reflect the potential for improvement of the general health status of our aging population," says Peter Jokl, professor of orthopedics at the Yale School of Medicine and one of the nation's leading experts on sports medicine. Jokl is the lead author of the study, which appears in the August issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Paul Sethi and Andrew Cooper, also of Yale, are the co-authors.
Faster Through the Years
The researchers studied the records of 415,000 runners who participated in the New York City Marathon from 1983 through 1999 to see if what they call "elite master" athletes — those at least 50 years of age who are capable of completing a marathon — had improved over the years, and how they compared to younger runners.
In a finding that is consistent with other studies, the researchers found that top younger runners showed no improvement.
"The performance of the 20-30 and 30-40 age groups has actually plateaued, with no improvement in running time," the researchers wrote. But that was far from the case for older runners, although older males gained less ground than females. That's possibly because it was "unfashionable" for females to run in marathons just a few decades ago, so they have more room for improvement today, the researchers suggest.
Female runners in their 40s, 50s and 60s shaved the most time off their performance, with those in their 60s showing the greatest improvement. They cut an average of 3.79 minutes off their running time each year over the entire period studied.
By contrast, male runners in their 50s only managed to shave off eight seconds from their running time each year, while females improved by 2.08 minutes a year.
The study does not suggest that older performers are about to catch up with the youngsters. The ravages of age are undeniable, so the researchers compared the performances of only the top 50 finishers in each gender and each age group from teens to octogenarians. The groups were broken down by decades so that people in their 60s, for example, were compared to past performers in their 60s.
Only the top finishers for each gender were included in the study because there are so many participants in the New York marathon these days that the average for all participants would not be a reliable measure of performance, the researchers contend. There are many runners who take so long to finish the race that to include them in the study would "skewer" the results, as they put it.
By using only the top performers, the researchers felt they were concentrating on those who take their running very seriously, and thus would offer the best measurement of change.
A Growing Herd