Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bruce Grierson's "What Makes Olga Run?"

Bruce Grierson, author of U-Turn (Bloomsbury USA) and co-author of Culture Jam, with Kalle Lasn, is a social-science writer living in Vancouver, BC.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives, and reported the following:
For some reason – maybe that fictional, 100-year-old Swede who climbed out the window is to blame — a lot of people think Olga Kotelko is a character I made up. I didn’t. Olga really was a nonagenarian Canadian track star who competed in eleven events, and notched 50 world records, and challenged a lot of what we know about human potential. And that picture of her on the book cover, where she’s launching herself over a long-jump pit, that’s not Photoshopped. She was flying. Olga really could leap and sprint and throw things like nobody’s business.

(If it’s surprising that I’m using the past tense, and at the risk of spoiling the reading experience for anybody, it’s my sad duty to report that Olga died suddenly in June of a cerebral hemorrhage, at age 95.)

Olga and I, we made it our business to try to figure out what was going on with her, right down to the molecular level. Here was a woman who seemed more resistant to the ravages of aging than just about everybody else. If we could understand her resistance a bit better, maybe that would tell us about what the forces she’s resisting are – that is, why we age.

What Makes Olga Run? unfolds, then, as a scientific mystery. I organized a research plan and Olga gamely submitted to all manner of poking and probing as we visited the labs of some of North America’s top experts in physiology and neurology and gerontology.

By page 99 the reader has had a pretty good look at Olga from the neck up. We’ve travelled to the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana to have her brain scanned by scientists at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science. And we’ve explored an evolutionary theory of Olga: what if part of the secret of her robustness is that she had lived a life exactly in accord with the design specs of the human machine? Now we’re going in tight on her bulletproof body.

Page 99 takes place in a lab at the McGill Brain Institute – the storied place where Wilder Penfield first mapped the noodle of Homo Sapiens.
In this pilot study, Olga, alone in her Lady Gaga vest, is the guinea pig. Her results will be leveraged for more funding to expand the study to include elite masters athletes from all over the world. And as much as [study-leader Tanja] Taivassalo wants new blood, she also wants Olga back in two years, to see what has changed in her body in that time. She is shining a pinprick of light into the physiological void. “No one, as far as we know, has ever done these measurements in someone this old,” Taivassalo says.

Today’s treadmill test will yield a VO2 max score for her aerobic capacity. Olga’s job is to go for it, against increasing resisting, as long and hard as she can. A grad student rubs Olga’s right ear with a cream to draw blood to the surface for extraction. Olga is now hot and her throat is dry and her ear hurts and the mouthpiece chafes. She is ready to rock.

There’s a certain amount of locker-room hup-hup. Guesses are exchanged on how high Olga’s heart rate will climb. (The old rule of thumb was that you should never rev your heart beyond 220 minus your age. That would suggest a maximum, for Olga, of 129 beats per minute. But recently a more complicated formula was developed to boost accuracy in those higher registers; it allows that the older heart can handle more than we once thought.)

There was mild concern that Olga’s stubborn stoicism in the face of pain will make her push herself to dangerous extremes. The Finns have a word for this trait: sisu. It’s something Taivassalo is familiar with: her Finnish, marathon-running dad has it, too. And so a pulmonologist is on hand. His job is to watch Olga’s EKG profile for abnormalities, and to call a halt if he sees any.”
Learn more about the book and author at Bruce Grierson's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue