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My Time by Abigail Trafford

In Athens, Gray Matters

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, August 24, 2004; Page HE01

Something funny happened on the way to the Games. The athletes got older.

In ancient Greece, the adoration of youth was the hallmark of the culture. As Plato put it: "Almost all young persons appear to be beautiful in my eyes." Today, Athens is again a showcase for youth and beauty. U.S. teenage idol Michael Phelps, the 19-year-old swimmer from Maryland, had already won the gold in the celebrity free-for-all before the Games began.

But athletes well beyond their youth are making their mark.

Jimmy Pedro, Jr., 33, who won a bronze in judo, is a dad, not a kid. He'd already competed in two Olympics and won a bronze eight years ago. He lives in Lawrence, Mass., with his wife and three children. "Out of Retirement and Onto the Medal Stand," screamed the headline in the New York Times.

Alexsandr Popov, a Russian swimmer, is 32. In the men's 4x100 meter freestyle relay, the United States edged out Russia, but Popov actually had a faster time than Phelps.

The 40-something crowd is also holding its own. Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli of France, the grande dame of cycling at 45, placed 10th in the women's road race. In the first round of women's doubles, the Old Faithful of tennis, Martina Navratilova, 47, played for the United States and easily won against her Ukrainian opponents before losing later on.

Since the 1968 Summer Games, the average age of medal winners has been creeping up in different sports. Women cyclists have aged almost a decade, from early twenties to about 30.

The age creep in Olympic medal winners reflects a trend in aging worldwide. Men and women today are, on average, about 10 years younger physically than their grandparents were at the same age.

Recent research shows that the body -- and the brain -- are amazingly adaptable and malleable. Mental and physical functioning can be maintained and even improved through training. "It's the use-it-or-lose-it" approach to aging, said gerontologist John W. Rowe, chairman and CEO of Aetna and co-author of "Successful Aging."

There is no denying the biological changes related to age that affect a person, from the eyes and ears to the immune system. Muscles, for example, get slower and weaker as people get older. But medical help may be on the way. Animal experiments suggest that interventions can enhance muscle strength. In one study, rats improved their hind-leg muscles with hormones.

Meanwhile, age is increasingly relative. You don't have to be an Olympic athlete to stay in shape -- but exercise is key to everyone's physical fitness. "Sixty-year-old runners are not as good as when they were 40, but they will be better than the average 40-year-old," continued Rowe. And some men and women find more time to go to the gym at 60 than when they were 40 and juggling the demands of working and raising children. These 60-somethings are often in better shape today than they were 20 years ago.

Earlier this year, AARP magazine -- which is aimed at people over 50 -- had this headline on its cover: "60 is the New 30!" For many people heading toward Medicare Land, this may seem a bit of a stretch. But the principle is correct: The old gray chronology ain't what it used to be.

"Are changes related to age inevitable and irreversible? The answer used to be yes," said Rowe. "Now the answer is, maybe no."

The game is not over when the Social Security check arrives. Like judo medal winner Pedro, you may want to get "out of retirement."

That usually means an attitude shift. As Pedro told the Times: "I could have stayed home and sat behind my desk. Instead I decided to give it one more shot."

One more shot. That's what the bonus years after midlife are all about: one more shot. And then another, and another, perhaps.

It's not easy. Winning an Olympic medal at age 32 is a metaphor for what it often takes to regenerate in My Time. Pedro put it this way: "I had to fight every single moment of this day to get it." •

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address below; mark the envelope "My Time."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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