“How we age is 30 percent genetics and 70 percent under our direct control,” says orthopedic surgeon Vonda Wright, author of “Fitness Over 40” and director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes, a University of Pittsburgh program aimed at helping older sports enthusiasts exercise effectively. “Baby boomers get that, and they want control — they’ve always wanted control. But sports medicine doctors haven’t caught on that these athletes want to hear how to keep playing — not why to stop playing.”
“The fact is,” she adds, “a 75-year-old athlete may still perform many times faster and be in better health than a sedentary 30- or 40-year-old.”
We senior athletes are a stubborn bunch — and there are more of us every day. The fastest-growing demographic for fitness club membership is people over age 55, according to the International Health & Racquet Sportsclub Association. In 2005, the number of 55-and-older members was 8 million; in 2009 it was 10.3 million. Aging athletes are competing at every level, from local 10-Ks and tournaments to elite competitions such as the Summer National Senior Games, where in June some 10,000 athletes from ages 50 to 101 participated in 18 events, including basketball, pole vaulting and triathlon. (The 101-year-old competed in shotput, javelin, discus and hammer throw.)
Some aging athletes come to competition later in life, such as Mary Lathram, a 96-year-old Falls Church woman who began swimming for fitness at 64, started competing at 65 and set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke at 92. Some are athletes who never stopped, such as 48-year-old marathon runner and orthopedic surgeon Ben Kittredge of Alexandria, who has kept running since college — eight miles a day, seven days a week. Many others are like me, former teen athletes who compete intermittently as adults. I led my tennis team at the University of Georgia from 1967 to 1971 and still qualify for teams at the highest local amateur level.
With age, however, comes an increased risk of injury, says orthopedic surgeon Thomas Martinelli, a former collegiate basketball player. “For instance, ankle sprains become less prevalent, while fractures become more likely with the same injury. Rotator-cuff tears increase in incidence over age 40 and are almost unheard of in the under-20 group.”
Yet doctors are seeing more injured senior athletes with high expectations. “When I started practice 24 years ago, if a 60-year-old walked into my office I’d assume they were lost,” says George Branche III, an orthopedic surgeon with a sports medicine specialty in Arlington.