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When psychologist Anne Bowen, PhD, broke her collarbone after falling off her horse, her physician didn't think it was a big deal when the bone failed to heal properly. "The implication was that I was too old to worry about it, that I could live with it," says Bowen, a 64-year-old University of Arizona psychology professor. Bowen couldn't live with it. In fact, she's so serious about dressage that she works with a trainer to help her achieve world-class skills. And she plans to keep it up for the rest of her life. Says Bowen, "I hope that's how I die—riding my horse."

The experience launched Bowen into a new line of research examining the motivations of older athletes and the barriers they face.

As the number of older Americans has soared, so has the number of older people competing in sports. Since the National Senior Games Association was founded in 1987, for example, the number of athletes age 50 and older who compete in the event's 19 sports has nearly quadrupled. And psychologists, kinesiologists and others are exploring what motivates these competitive older athletes, how they benefit from staying so active and some ­possible downsides to late-life athletic competition.

Defying age

Bowen's qualitative interviews with older athletes have revealed some themes about why they compete. For some, it's no longer about the competition itself. "I care more about the process… than the goal," one 66-year-old athlete told Bowen, describing the many ribbons she had won in her past. "[T]hat doesn't interest me as much. I love the process. The process is intoxicating."

The older athletes also described the psychological benefits of exercise, the social network of fellow athletes and the physical benefits, including weight loss. "I expected to hear from my interviewees more social ­barriers—people saying, ‘You're too old, you should quit, you'll get hurt,'" says Bowen. "But it seems to be more positive."

That finding is in keeping with research on older athletes' motivations, according to Rylee A. Dionigi, PhD, an associate professor of sociocultural dimensions in the School of Exercise Science, Sport and Health at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, Australia. In a 2013 paper in Sport, Education and Society, Dionigi and co-authors interviewed competitors in the World Masters Games. In contrast to the dominant cultural narrative of bodies in decline, they found that these athletes—with a mean age of 72—were simultaneously resisting, redefining and accepting aging.

Interviewees described participation in sports as a way to delay aging, for example. "I consider I'm not old at 80," one competitor told the researchers. "I'm just a little wearing out, but you're only as old as you think." Competitors also described the social, mental and physical stimulation sports offer. And they spoke of adapting to a loss of speed, agility or other physical characteristics by changing sports or continuing participation without worries about performance.

A growing body of neuroscience research suggests that intense activity may also help to delay cognitive aging. In a 2016 study in Neurology, for example, researchers asked almost 900 racially and ethnically diverse older people about their ­leisure-time physical activities over the past two weeks. An average of seven years later, the researchers checked their cognitive performance and then again five years after that.

The 10 percent of participants who had reported moderate- to high-intensity activities—vigorous exercise such as running or aerobics—had slower declines in cognitive functioning than the 90 percent of participants who had reported only light activity—such as walking or yoga—or no physical activity at all.

Among those who had no cognitive problems at the start of the study, the low-activity group showed greater declines over five years in processing speed and episodic memory even after the researchers adjusted for smoking, high blood pressure and other factors that could affect brain health. The difference, the researchers concluded, was the equivalent of a decade's worth of aging.

While physical activity didn't help the people who were already showing signs of cognitive problems or memory loss at baseline, the study suggests that activity may help protect healthy brains, says co-author Clinton B. Wright, MD, who conducted the research while at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine and has since moved to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. But more research is needed, he adds.

"This was an observational study," emphasizes Wright. What's needed, he says, are randomized clinical trials to confirm that exercise can help delay the brain's aging. "Innovative approaches that take into account real-life challenges, such as so-called ‘pragmatic' clinical trials, are of particular interest," says Wright.

Olga Kotelko (1919–2014) at the world Masters Indoor Athletics Championships in Budapest in March 2014. (photo: Alex Rotas)Research on the brain of an older Masters athlete named Olga Kotelko offers provocative hints that intense exercise could offer even greater protective benefits. A retired teacher turned late-life athlete, Kotelko took up softball at age 65, switched to track and field at 77 and went on to set world records and win hundreds of gold medals in World Masters Athletics events before dying at 95.

In research published in 2016 in Neurocase, cognitive neuroscientist Agnieszka Z. Burzynska, PhD, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and colleagues compared the 93-year-old Kotelko's results from magnetic resonance imaging and cognitive tests with results from a group of healthy but low-­activity women who were 20 years younger, on average.

While Kotelko's brain did show some age-related changes, what was surprising was how intact Kotelko's white-matter tracts were, especially in the genu of the corpus callosum, which contains fibers connecting prefrontal brain regions responsible for higher-level cognitive functioning. Although the genu is the part of the white matter most susceptible to aging, says Burzynska, Kotelko's genu was in better shape than those in the younger group.

Burzynska believes that it wasn't just exercise that made Kotelko's brain so resilient, but her overall activity level and her willingness to take up challenges, including sports, volunteering and travel. To borrow a term from animal research, says Burzynska, "Olga put herself in an enriched environment."

"We can't guarantee that everybody who takes up sports right after retirement will have their first gold medals and an improved brain," adds Burzynska, noting that this is a single case study of a brain at one point in time. "But it shows evidence that there may be some benefits of taking up activity or staying active into old age."

A nuanced picture

When it comes to the psychosocial outcomes of later-life participation in sports, research shows it's actually a mixed bag, says Amy M. Gayman, PhD, an adjunct faculty member in the kinesiology department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada.

In a 2016 review of the literature on sports participation in individuals 65 and older, published in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Gayman and her co-authors found that participation in sports gives older people a sense of competence, enjoyment, new social relationships and a more positive identity in addition to a cognitive boost.

The literature review also revealed that sports can be empowering for older women, though less so for older men.

"Whereas men were more likely to look at their performance results and make comparisons with younger people's and women's results, women looked at their own results and felt empowered by what they were achieving regardless of what they had done before or what others were achieving," says Gayman. But for men and women alike, the declines in performance that inevitably accompany aging could be disheartening. "When performance declined, they experienced some negative emotions, more specifically a fear of aging," says Gayman.

The risk of activating such fears wasn't the only downside to sports participation, says Gayman.

Older athletes may also face some resistance from others in their lives. When you think about sports, your mind goes to young people, not 80-year-olds running marathons, says Gayman. Such stereotypes underlie some of the feedback older competitors receive. "People say, ‘What are you doing training and competing? You're an older person. Isn't it time you relax and enjoy life?'" says Gayman. There can also be tension within families, as spouses and others grow resentful of the time older people spend on training and competing when society expects them to be taking things easy at home.

What's needed is more research in this emerging field, says Joseph Baker, PhD, a co-­author of the paper and a professor of kinesiology and health science at York University in Toronto. "What we concluded at the end of our systematic review is that we don't have enough information," he says.

Most of the data focus on physical health, Baker points out. "If we look at it that way, then absolutely, participating in sports is good," he says. "But if we look at it in other ways, it may not be." Health isn't a single, multidimensional concept, he says. "With Masters and older athletes, we know a lot about the physical aspect and are starting to know more about the cognitive and social aspects, but there's nothing about other elements of health—emotional, spiritual and other dimensions."

"Sports" isn't a single thing, either, says Baker, noting the differences among sports that emphasize power, endurance, speed and strategy. Certain sports, he says, may be better for older athletes than others. In addition, he adds, the research samples the research draws on don't reflect the diversity of older athletes. "If you go to the World Masters Games, it's predominantly relatively affluent people of European descent, usually from North America or Australia," he says.

"The message so far is, ‘Sport is great. Look at older athletes; they seem to represent a model of successful aging,'" says Baker. "But it's much more nuanced than that."