Sept. 1, 2004 -- 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
Interestingly, they found that the greatest growth in participation also occurs among seniors, reflecting an aging population that is at least somewhat concerned over maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Even marathons are no longer off limits.
"Twenty five years ago, few 60-year-old men, much less women, or their doctors would have considered it possible for someone of their age to run 26 miles," the researchers say. Not only do older runners participate, they do quite well.
"The most impressive improvements occur in the age groups 60-69 and 70-79 for men and 50-59 and 60-69 for women," the study says.
Women, especially, have embraced the concept that vigorous exercise can be especially helpful.
During the study period there were no restrictions based on sex or age on entering the New York marathon, and the numbers grew from 14,546 in 1983 to 31,791 in 1999, an increase of 119 percent.
The ratio of males to females was 5.6 to 1 in 1983. But by 1999, the ratio had dropped to 2.47 to 1.
If that trend continues, the researchers say, the ratio should be about 1 to 1 in 2007.
And the fact that each year older runners do better than the year before shows just how important regular exercise can be. There isn't any single thing we can do for ourselves that is more likely to slow the aging process, the researchers argue.
Regular exercise can lower cholesterol, the leading cause of heart disease, and "master athletes tend to be less depressed, angry and fatigued than their non-athletic counterparts," the study says.
"Many of the changes in health status previously thought to be a consequence of normal aging have been shown to be a result of sedentary lifestyle," it adds.
We've heard that all before, but apparently many people aren't listening, and the wrong numbers keep going up.
The American Hearth Association says that as of last year, 51 percent of men and 48 percent of women aged 55-64 have cardiovascular disease. And that number jumps to 65 percent for both genders aged 65-74.
"Aging is further associated with decreased muscular strength and endurance leading to a declining functional capacity and quality of life," the study says, and then it adds:
"The most dramatic aspect of this decline is probably not the result of aging but the inactivity associated with aging. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of all causes of mortality by about 25 percent and increase life expectancy by up to two years. Despite the benefits of exercise, only 20 to 30 percent of all adults engage in vigorous activity on a regular basis, and a staggering 25 percent are totally inactive."
That's especially troubling to the researchers, who conclude that modern medicine has made it possible for us to live many years longer, but how well we live is largely up to us.
"The multifactor health benefits of exercise have been made clear, and the myth that older people cannot complete marathons has been dispelled," they conclude.
But of course, not everybody can, or should, run marathons. Numerous studies show that just a little exercise on a regular basis can make a significant difference. And it's a funny thing, but sometimes a little exercise tends to feed on itself, and pretty soon it's a lot more than a few minutes per day.
So call off the search, Ponce de Leon. We've found it.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.