[00:00] Introduction/About Olga Kotelko
[02:40] Who is Olga and What’s Her Story
[04:47] How Bruce Found Olga
[08:24] The Superstar, Worrier, and Warrior Genes
[21:44] Why Olga and Other Master’s Athletes Still Have Plaques in their Brain
[33:41] High Intensity Interval Training versus Long, Slow Distances
[41:11] Olga’s Sleeping Habits
[46:12] Personality Traits that Correlate with Longevity
[56:11] End of Podcast
Ben: Hey folks, its Ben Greenfield here and I recently learned about this 90-something, I believe 95-year old or possibly 94-year old at the time that the book that I just finished was written, track and field athlete. Her name is Olga and she not only looks and acts like a much younger woman but she holds over 23 world records in track and field. And this book that I recently read goes into her diet habits, her sleep habits, how she scores on various personality traits, what she does in her spare time, her family history, her genes. Basically, the book details how she went through a process of participating in tests that were administered by some of the world’s leading scientists. She offered her DNA to these ground-breaking research trials and really what the book delves into is how you can learn to live a longer and happier life based off of what science and research and the author of this book has discovered about Olga and people like her.
So the author of “What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives” is my guest today on the Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast. His name is Bruce Grierson, and I hope I’m pronouncing your last name correctly, Bruce.
Bruce: You got it.
Ben: And today we’re gonna delve into what you can learn about how to live as long as possible and be as happy as possible doing it, based off of this fascinating story of Olga. So Bruce, thanks for coming on the call.
Bruce: Hello, totally my pleasure, Ben. Thank you for having me.
Ben: Well I suppose a perfect place to jump right in would be to say “who is Olga”? What’s the story of Olga.
Bruce: Alrighty. Olga is 90-something, she just turned 95 actually. I had breakfast with her a couple of weeks ago, she turned 95 and she was thrilled to be 95 because in Master’s track, you move up in 5 year increments. So every time, you know, 95 or the next… the next time you turn a 5 or a 0, you bump up a category and the competition thins out and you get to know off more world records.
Ben: She aged up.
Bruce: [laughs] She did, and so now she… and since that breakfast a couple of weeks ago, she’s been off to Budapest to do the World Indoor Championships in the new category for her of 95-99, and you can guess the competition’s a bit thin at that level. There are a couple of people she competed against, but namely she’s competing against her own world records and her own age grade at the time. So she’s competing against how people should be expected to perform if they’re that age. They worked out these age graded tables, you kind of take into account expected decline of the human body over time and then you plug in your performance, whatever, your sprint time or how you threw the javelin and then your age and your gender, and they spit out an open record which would be equivalent to what you just did. And so Olga got back from Budapest with nine new world records, no surprise there, but I think seven of them were age graded, the best performance any woman has ever done in that category.
Ben: Right, wow.
Bruce: So she shift… you know [laughs] that’s why I wrote about her.
Ben: So how did you find Olga? Did you just hear about her or…?
Bruce: I heard about her about 5 years ago when… at that time she was still kind of a big deal in Master’s track, but Master’s track is a pretty obscure field. I hadn’t really heard much about it, and so I didn’t know about her. She was just actually profiled here, we both live in Vancouver, Canada and true enough she wasn’t that far away. So when I heard about her, I thought that maybe she was kind of an interesting human interest story and I’d like to meet her and maybe I would write something about her. And so I called her up and she invited me over, and I didn’t really know what to expect but in the first couple of minutes of having met her and sort of looking at her, watching the way she moved and kinda the energy coming off her… at this point she’s 89 about to turn 90, and it became clear to me within about five minutes that there was a different kind of story to be told through Olga. It was… the science writer in me said “wow okay, this is not just about a woman doing a quirky thing, this is about how we age, pulled through this person who seems to be defying a lot of the rules about it all.”
Ben: So at that point, it looks like you delved in and just started to hook up with all these scientists to study Olga, and did this book take a long time to write or how did you go about doing this?
Bruce: Kinda. I sort of had to ask her at a certain point whether she was up for a bigger enterprise, whether she would take this journey with me and kinda be a guinea pig, and was she interested enough in what was going on in herself to make this commitment. Coz there’s a lot of tests and a lot of poking and prodding and a lot of time commitment and some travelling… a big deal. But she was cool.
Ben: She went through a very wide battery of tests in this book.
Bruce: Yeah, and what was cool was she said, when I asked her how old she felt, I thought that was a good beginning metric, “how old do you feel like you are?” And she said “I’m 50…” then she said “nah, maybe younger coz I feel like I have more energy than I had at 50.”
Bruce: And then she said “I dunno why it is, let’s figure it out” and so I thought “alright, here we go, we’re all in this together and let’s tap some of the contacts we have in Canada and then let’s just go as wide as we can, as far as we can, as long as we can and as deeply as we can to figure… until we’re satisfied that we’ve really turned over as many stones as we can.” We can’t know everything, there’s so many variables in human aging and human performance but we’re gonna do all we can to at least get to the right questions and set up, starting framing her in the context of how we age and how we can age better, so…
Ben: Hmm, now one of the things that you got into initially was genetic testing and looking at Olga’s genes. And in the book you talk about a superstar gene, a worrier gene, and a warrior gene. How does this relate to aging and the genetic testing experience you had with Olga?
Bruce: Yeah, well there’s sort of two things I was looking at in terms of her genes. I guess I should back up and say that the question sort of at the heart of this whole book and the question everybody has is, okay this one’s interesting, but she’s gotta be just a freak of nature, right? She’s gotta be the lucky recipient of a good genetic hand, and if that’s true, that’s simply the question we started with, is that true? And if it is true, then it’s still interesting, she’s still interesting but it doesn’t mean as much, she’s not as useful to the rest of us if that’s the case because then that would suggest there’s nothing we could do to be more like Olga. And so I wanted to know how does it slice up, what part of it is her lucky genes both in terms of performance, how she’s able to do these things, and the fact that she seems to be aging more slowly than most of us. So it’s the performance and the aging dimension that I was curious about with the genes. So the first thing with the aging, the first thing that a doctor will ask is let’s find out about your family history. If you come from a long line of Methuselah’s, then you’re likely getting a ton of genetic help in that respect. But it turns out that for Olga, she’s the 7th of 11 kids and she’s outlived them all, and her mom and dad weren’t that old when they died.
Bruce: So right away, you begin to suspect genes aren’t the whole story here for sure. And then we did some genetic testing, some hotspot testing… at one point we thought about trying to map her whole genome but that can end up being not as productive a thing as you think because you can map it but we still don’t really know how to read it very well.
Bruce: And there’d be a lot there that’s not useful to us, so we did the hotspot testing which is about a million places on the genome that are thought to be significant in some way. And there are certain genes that I looked at that are relevant to various aspects of this story. And so the one you talked about, the superstar allele is the one that just about every Olympic sprinter who has been tested has had two copies of this particular allele that creates sort of explosive energy. And so Olga had that, not surprising because that’s her main thing, she’s a sprinter, she’s not an endurance person, she’s a sprinter and sort of a power thrower of things and runner of short distances.
Bruce: That’s where she favors, she’s a fast twitcher. And then the other one I was interested in, well there were a number, but one that we looked at was a set of genes that gives us the proclivity to respond well to exercise training. So some of us can do the same amount of exercise as others and actually get fitter faster just because of that genetic advantage. And I thought this was gonna be really significant so I got tested for that one too just as a comparison, and neither of us had the full suite of genes that would make us a super responsive athlete. She had about half of them that you need and I had almost none of them, which was kind of discouraging but explained a lot about why [laughs] to me, why my own fitness has cratered after age 40. I keep going out there and try to just start to gym but I can’t seem to keep my fitness up.
Bruce: I’m starting to explain that I partly didn’t get the genetic cards for that, which is no reason to not keep doing it, you just can’t expect to gain the same as those who had the cards. Anyway, that was part of our adventures in the genetics, but there’s so much. Sorry Ben, you go.
Ben: I was gonna say I think it’s interesting that you mentioned in the book how you have this double warrior gene, which technically would mean that you have more horsepower or perhaps a greater propensity toward athleticism but that you tend to fade faster when you have that double warrior gene, right?
Bruce: Yeah, and there’s a certain level of impulsiveness I think connected to the warrior genetic… I summarized this as “ready, fire, aim”. It tends to be people who are yeah, fire fast at the gates and make strong decisions but may not have the staying power for the long run.
Ben: Whereas Olga was half warrior and half worrier, so she’s more likely to hang on to her hardiness later on in life.
Bruce: Yeah, I think that’s sort of what they do, they tell you, like if you’re drawing it up, drawing up the perfect person, you would give one of each of those alleles so they have the advantages of each.
Ben: Now if someone’s listening in and they wanna do that same type of genetic testing, is that similar to the 23andMe that’s out there?
Bruce: Now somebody was telling me 23andMe stopped doing some of the health reports that they did when…
Ben: Temporarily they did, but you can export your 23andMe results and then import them into a free website called geneticgenie.com and you can get quite a bit of results. And I actually had a physician on the show a few weeks ago named Dr. Tim Jackson and he specializes in just getting on the phone with people and walking them through their genetic results. So even though 23andMe doesn’t give you detailed health data anymore, if you’ve tested with them in the past year or so you can still harvest the data and then hook up with someone who could explain it to you.
Bruce: Cool, I did not know that. It’s good to know.
Ben: You have an entire chapter in the book devoted to the diversity hypothesis. Can you explain what the adversity hypothesis is and why that’s important when it comes to longevity?
Bruce: Yeah. Well people think that you want to live a stress-free life, or some people think that, if you wanna live long and age, avoid stress.
Ben: Yeah, hear that all the time.
Bruce: The truth is that what you wanna avoid is chronic stress, it’s the kind of stress that you get in service, in a job that you have no control over what happens or the kind of thing where you’re dealing with an elderly parent that you have to take care of or a special needs kid. Something over the long run that’s just relentless and doesn’t give you a chance to rest from it, but the other kind of stress is acute stress. Things you have to face and you really have to muster a strong stress response and then you punch through them and you get to rest. Those things toughen us up in a way, exactly the opposite way that chronic stress breaks us down, so even at the cellular level we can see that those two different kinds of stressful experiences work on our immune systems differently. I argued… I sort of tested it first of all by looking at Olga’s story, what has her life been like? What has she gone through, and it turns out like many people of her generation, she had a fairly vigorous, difficult upbringing on the farm, lot of work, lot of challenges, lot of physical exercise that is kind of acute stress for the body, things you have to do and punch through them. And then she had other stressors in her life that were really difficult, a very terrifying marriage that she had to endure and escape from.
Bruce: And then she lost a daughter to cancer, she had to get through that… so there’s just ways where I think she’s tough by nature as well, but there’s also a lot of things that she had to deal with and just solve and get through and get beyond that made her tougher still. And so a combination of her natural temperament which is… she’s a really persevering person by nature, but also what she went through in her life, and it’s the kind of stuff that people of our generation, we think we’re tough but man, those people of her era are just generally made of strong stuff.
Bruce: And it comes through in what she’s able to do now.
Ben: I think it’s really interesting how you get into this concept of acute stress ultimately being good for us. One of the examples that you use in the book is kids growing up on the Canadian prairie who get toughened up by the wind chill that freezes their exposed flesh and how some of the research that’s been done in rats show that rats that are given the ability to develop cold tolerance can have increased emotional stability and that may have this anti-aging effect.
Bruce: It’s funny, you talk a lot about cold thermogenesis, and it just interesting that a lot of sort of the technical hacks that people pursue these days are so much like the kinds of things that somebody like Olga naturally was exposed to. It’s almost like through technology, we’re trying to simulate the kind of experience that people naturally had, and I think that there’s a lot of wisdom, accidental wisdom in the kind of life that somebody like Olga lived. Eating real food and getting the kind of exercise that she had, and just to think that science now bares out as… these are really sensible things to do, she did by instinct.
Ben: Yeah. It’s that classic, I dunno about here in the northwest, it’s that classic aged Montana rancher gene, both… My wife is from Bozeman, Montana and her in-laws have lived through extremely… they’re up in their 90s and are working out in the fields, and I think it’s that kind of daily stress versus, you talk about the new class of telomere activating drugs in the book and these things that might potentially lengthen the telomeres, and I think it’s interesting how we have all of this technology going towards hacking aging when in fact I think a big part of it comes down to just trying to live more naturally and almost a little bit uncomfortably.
Bruce: Mmhmm, yeah that’s funny how a lot of the things we try to do to sort of improve on what evolution built in us. Instead of looking to the past, how should we be living in a way that sort of our bodies evolved to live, we try to find ways, like the drugs you just talked about, let’s extend our telomeres, sort of forgetting that nature built in a mechanism that you don’t want your telomeres to be too long.
Bruce: There’s a sweet spot in there, beyond which you become vulnerable to certain kinds of cancers and stuff.
Bruce: We monkey with this stuff at our peril, not to be a butthead about it and there’s obviously cool things that technology has made our lives better, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the body, it’s contained in the cells in the body itself that we need to just honor.
Bruce: And so that’s me, it’s sort of a subtext of the book as I learn more and more about it, you know?
Ben: Now in addition to genetic testing, Olga did some brain scans, and it’s interesting that her and some of the other folks you talk about in the book who have been observed to live to very long ages but stay pretty sharp from a cognitive standpoint, they actually still display some evidence of plaque formation. How can that be that an aging person can have plaques in the brain and not actually get some of these Alzheimer risks or cognitive decline that you see in other members of the population?
Bruce: Hmm, well sometimes what brains do, they create these work-arounds. I always think of it like a good cut off in the brain of a person who’s got a proclivity to something like Alzheimer’s as been mentioned, but has also been doing things to combat that. The brain starts to figure out ways to work around the plaque so that you wouldn’t notice from talking to them that the wiring in there is as jerry-rigged as it really. It’s like our brains are so plastic and malleable and responsive to what we’re giving them that they find a way, if we give them a lot of aerobic exercise for a long time for example, that really helps them find a way to surmount some of the natural problems that they’ve inherited. So when we gave Olga a brain scan at the University of Illinois, Section 8, a clinic called the Beckman Institute which is really at the forefront of the studying where physical exercise and cognition meet. And so we went in with that hypothesis that she’s as sharp as she is partly because of all the lifetime of exercise.
Now it’s impossible to prove that unless you have taken scans of her brain all the way along, and unless she’s one of a big data set of people who were age matched and had lived differently, you can’t know for sure. But, the strong circumstantial case that her exercise has helped her is that her brain looked pretty good, it looked really good in some respects. The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for making and consolidating memories, which is the thing that you really wanna hang to as you get old, but you don’t…
Bruce: Her hippocampus looked fantastic and that part of the brain we know is very responsive to exercise. And if her whole brain looked like that, then you couldn’t say “that’s the exercise talking there” but the fact that she had shown decline elsewhere, in other parts, normal age-related decline, shrinkage in other parts of the brain that they haven’t found a link with the exercise. So that made the directive institute, Beckman, made a claim, I should say.
Bruce: Made him say that that’s strong evidence that she’s built part of this brain herself.
Bruce: From some of these good habits like her lifelong exercise habits, so…
Ben: So you have these white matter tracks that carry information through your brain, and these ventricles in the middle of the brain have your cerebrospinal fluid and everything in them. Even if you have plaques in your brain, if you’ve got these vessels almost like big rivers throughout the brain, a lot of times it’s almost like a workaround to allow you to, even though you have much of the plaque formation that naturally occurs are you age, to kinda work around that.
Bruce: Mmhmm, that’s sort of the idea that your brain finds all sorts of ingenious ways to still function pretty optimally even though systemically it doesn’t look like our brain.
Bruce: You’re probably a lot sharper than I am but it doesn’t look like the brain is somebody who’s 35 when there’s plaque up there.
Ben: Now when it comes to neurogenesis and kind of expanding your hippocampus in this way, in the book you say that for building cognition, something like Sudoku, that and crossword puzzles and these brain games and all these things we see recommended to us, you say that those type of things are a shovel but exercise is a bulldozer. What do you mean by that, is there evidence to show that somehow exercise beats out all these other things?
Bruce: I think the way of what exercise does, the other things are good to and actually Olga does some, she’s a real Sudoku fiend. But exercise, what they’re finding, goes way wider than the improvements that you can make with the brain games. The brain games make you better at doing things like the brain games that you practiced, whereas exercise bolsters every part of the brain. And the cool thing though, not to sort of dis the brain games, but when you do both, when you have some sort of a regime where you try to stay cognitively sharp by pushing your brain intellectually, reading and games, that sort of thing, and you add that to a fitness regime. So you’re getting your aerobic and your resistance training, at the same time you do them both, you see to get a multiplier effect.
Bruce: And you get more than the sum of those two things individually.
Ben: So basically if you can figure out a way to make exercise not just exercise but also something complex that’s challenging you mentally while you’re exercising, that’s the best of both worlds?
Bruce: I think if you’re a dancer or you’re a skater, or something where you’re getting the pretty significant aerobic and anaerobic challenge to your system as well as you’re forcing your body to move on all these different planes and you’re really aesthetically pushing it too, I think that there’s some evidence that that’s where you really get the best possible outcome in cognition.
Ben: So maybe there really is something to those Zumba classes at the gym.
Bruce: [laughs] I think that there’s something to moving and pacing, like you haven’t gotten used to moving, confusing your body is good on so many levels…
Ben: Man, so many of us don’t do it though.
Ben: It’s so easy to go out and just ride your bike, right? Or go for a run.
Bruce: Yeah, well I’m guilty of that, too. I know in my runs that I get my fix, my little cannabinoid hit at 35 minutes and it’s so easy to go take that pill coz I know what I’m getting. But really there’s a lot of evidence that we need to mix it up, we really need to confuse our bodies because that’s how you force the adaptation. I think that with Olga, she does 11 different events and her body moves in just about every way a body can move if you add them all up.
Ben: Oh yeah?
Bruce: And so I think that that’s contributing in some way, I think that’s contributing to her staying sharp and staying fit and staying resilient.
Bruce: I’m not sure I can prove that in a court of law yet, but I’m pretty convinced.
Ben: And for those of you listening in, you don’t have to necessarily shirk away from this stuff if you’re 40 or 50 or 60 or 70. I know that you go, Bruce, into the book about how they compared the old mice and the young mice and found that when either of them were put into a treadmill program, that exercise rebuilt their brains and that was true even in the older rats who actually, I believe you said that the older rats were building neurons at even greater rate than some of the younger animals when exercise is introduced.
Bruce: Possibly, that was one of the sort of uplifting, for me, messages of the book. All the research… we used to think that there was no hope for us if we had been sedentary up to our 50s and 60s. If we’ve been sitting on the couch and then we decided to reclaim our health at 65, it seemed like such an unlikely prospect but we now know that we can make huge gains even very late in life when you start to do this stuff as long as you start slowly and don’t get injured. Very deep into old age, you can still show improvements, and as you say they’re in some ways, you get on a road that starts to converge with the road that you would’ve been on had you been fit all along. I don’t think you ever quite get there if you were a total couch potato for the first half, you never… those two roads won’t meet, but you will by some measures make faster gains, you’ll start to catch up in a way that’s pretty heartening. Now a question I asked a few of scientists who… is Olga at her age now, is she actually improving? Can she make gains or are we just talking about stemming losses now? And nobody has a clear answer for that but I think that probably at this point, beyond maybe 85, you’re stemming losses. So she’s not getting worse as fast as she would if she weren’t doing all these things. She’s hanging on, but it’s still amazing to look at some of her results at 95, and they’re not that much worse than they were at 90.
Bruce: And a lot of it depends on what she brings on a particular day. And if she senses she’s having a good day, then she will go for it, and what happened in Budapest is she went for it on one particular day and she got… I think it was high jump or long jump, and every successive attempt was a better world record than the last one. They kept having to bring the guys down and do the measurement and make the announcement and make a lot of clapping and then she did it again and same routine. She did it again, and she’s just opportunistic that way, when she thinks, when she’s really on the beam and it’s happening for her, she really goes for it.
Bruce: And that’s kind of the cool kind of temperamental faculty which a lot of us don’t have realizing when it’s your day and when it isn’t. And a lot of us try to push through days when we’re exhausted or whatever, when the conditions just aren’t right but either our coach is telling us or we’re telling ourselves, gotta do it. And you can get injured and discouraged under those conditions, you should stop listening to your body and just listen to your coach.
Ben: Yeah, and I know that you get into some of the personality traits that correlate very well to longevity and if we have a chance later on, I’d like to ask you about those. But while we’re on the topic of exercise, there is a relation that you talk about in the book in terms of the growth of the hippocampus and the actual intensity of the activity, and I think this’ll be interesting for folks to hear because there’s kind of this debate out there – is the long, slow aerobic stuff best, is the high intensity interval training best? It turns out that exercise intensity actually does play a role. What did you find that you talk about in the book?
Bruce: Yeah, I think that there’s more and more evidence. It’s a controversial area but I think that on balance, the evidence is shifting more towards the kind of high intensity interval training over long, slow aerobic… the LSD, long slow distance. So the LSD group, there’s still a bunch out there who maintain it’s the way but I think they’re starting to lose the argument. I think in intensity, you can get the same… I mean you talked about this before, too, you get the same kinds of benefits in a much shorter workout but that’s more intense. And in terms of… one kind of a study that I set up was just looking at two fantastic athletes, Master’s athletes, runners. One was Ed Whitlock, he’s a marvelous long distance runner in his age, have you talked about him on the show at all? I dunno.
Ben: No but he’s a marathoner, right?
Bruce: Yeah he’s a marathoner and a 10,000 meter runner, and he’s all about long, slow distance. His training runs, he actually runs around the local cemetery for three hours every day in training season, very slow. And he thinks that that’s the way, it’s very hard to argue with his results because he ran a 253 marathon at age 73… oh no, did I get it correctly, I think so, yeah. Anyway, he’s by far the most impressive athlete/marathoner among the really old folk, so I kinda compared him just in terms of his youthfulness, just how old he felt, how old he looks compared to another guy who has a completely different strategy of high intensity interval training and that’s a guy named Earl Fee who runs shorter distances and trains differently and never puts in that kind of miles. And the two guys, they’re both sort of the best at what they do but they look 25 years different. Ed looks like Father Time himself…
Bruce: And Earl looks like, if you cover his face and just look at his body, he looks like he’s 50 years old.
Ben: Wow, it’s kinda like that whole muscle is youth type of thing?
Bruce: Well it’s partly muscle, but I think that there’s something… you could say that Ed Whitlock, from all that mileage, have done some oxidative damage that has aged him more quickly. People will challenge me on that but I think I could build a case to that.
Ben: Yeah, I won’t challenge. I mean I’ve seen, not the body builder athletes, I think that’s an unhealthy sport but just the strength-power-muscle type of folks and I’ve some of them on the podcast like Art DeVany and Cary Nosler, and these guys lift. They don’t necessarily run long distances, and compared to some of the guys who may have lived just as long as them up to this point but who did more of the running, these guys look amazing. They just look good, you cover up their faces, they look like 30-40 year old guys. Now you actually talk about this a little bit, you have this thing that you described in the book called the vampire effect, about these old mice that received blood transfusion from young mice, and suddenly started performing better on memory tests.
Ben: Now how does the blood actually play a role here?
Bruce: Yeah, well I think you’re talking about Saul [0:37:40] ______ workout of California.
Bruce: I think that the blood of certain people, and a lot of people in life-long exercises have certain ingredients and immune system boosters and circulating proteins. And all these things in the blood that almost works kind of like a really rich soil for other tissues in the body, and so Olga actually gave a blood sample and so did some of the other Master’s athletes in one of the tests that we did at [0:38:19] ______ and the idea is they’re gonna cultivate the cells in a petri dish and they’re gonna put muscle cells from age-matched control who had been sedentary their whole life, in that rich soil and see if those old muscle cells grow again.
Bruce: That is the theory, that there’s something about the components of the blood of young people and people who’ve been living right, that can rejuvenate not only their own tissues but the tissues of other people that they’re injected into. So that’s what they found in the mice, and to me it was the most interesting. The crazy thing was not just that it improved physical performance of the old mice as they got the new, young blood, but the cognitive performance that they could now run mazes better.
Bruce: Yeah, to me that’s a promising dimension of the research.
Ben: It’s really interesting and I think that the fact that the blood serum is full of all these things like circulating proteins and growth factors, and immune system boosters that age kinda tends to deplete…
Ben: Should give folks, especially who are aging, pause of what you can put into your bloodstream that might help you from that standpoint. I think that as I get older, I’ll probably start to think more about ways that I could potentially use things like supplementation and nutrient-dense foods. I even, right now, I get a blood test four times a year to actually what’s in my blood.
Ben: And I think that if someone’s listening in and they’re into anti-aging, into longevity, just this idea that what’s in your blood can keep you young is a pretty important consideration. I think the research that you talk about in that vampire effect that you talk about is just crazy that what’s in your blood really matters.
Bruce: It’s cool. The downside is some people are for sure gonna say “hey if we can figure out what’s circulating in Olga’s blood serum and synthesize it in the lab, then we can inject that back into the rest so then we won’t have to have a healthy lifestyle to get the benefits about having to get off the couch.” And you know, you’ll never get that.
Ben: Yeah, that’s kinda the same argument that says if you take enough fish oil you don’t have to exercise.
Ben: Now you go into some of Olga’s habits, fascinating chapter on her habits and I just want to ask you about a couple of them even though you go into a ton. Olga’s sleep habits are interesting, can you talk a little bit about her sleep habits coz they actually aren’t… it’s not that deep sleep, 8-9 hours through the whole night that I would’ve expected to see.
Bruce: Mmhmm. Yeah, well Olga fell into something, like so many things that she does, routines that she kinda fell into because they seem to be what her body wanted to do. And so what she does is she goes to sleep at around 10 at night, and then naturally wakes up at around 2, and she’s awake kinda but she doesn’t get up at that point. She… what she figured out is the best thing for her is to keep the lights dim or dark, and do a stretching routine right there in her bed in the middle of the night. You would guess, she lives alone, you wouldn’t wanna do it with a partner beside you, and she does this sort of stretching and self-massage routine that she made up for herself and it takes 90 minutes. And so she does it in the middle of the night, and by the end of it she’s all enervated and sleepy, she goes back to sleep for a second sleep for about three and a half hours. So in the end, through this weird…
Ben: You say how she actually uses a wine bottle for the deep tissue work that she does.
Ben: She keeps a wine bottle?
Bruce: Yeah, she doesn’t genuinely know that you can get a foam roller that kinda costs $50. Why should you do that coz she had a wine bottle but they’re the same thing so she pulls it over her bedside table then she rolls and works those muscles in her back with the wine bottle, and then she does the rest of her body, sort of extend the gudgeon very systematically. And at the end, then she falls back asleep for her second sleep, and that’s this polyphasic sleep that we’re learning… one farmer to another, was the way we used to sleep way back when before the industrial revolution and everything’s forced us into a natural routine of 8 hours at a blocking, no more.
Bruce: There all kinds of polyphasic sleep people do, they can get the naps and…
Ben: I think it’s important though, she’s not reading a Kindle or checking emails?
Ben: She’s just stretching and I think there’s a big difference between that and working. The massage piece is interesting because you look at aging people and they get this issue with crosslinking of collagen fibers and the wearing down of fascia. And they also, basically you’ve got what you describe as a shrink wrap wrapped around your body, this fascia, this nerve-rich net of connective tissue. And I think that’s a lost art almost, people not paying attention to just something as important as deep tissue massage as an anti-aging and longevity technique. And I love how you also get into the primal appeal of it, how we’ve got this mother’s tongue licking that a lot of mammals do as almost a massage that animals get from the get go and studies have shown that primi babies who get massaged grow and develop more quickly. There’s all this benefits of this deep tissue work and she’s just waking up in the night and doing it.
Bruce: She’s kinda figured it out for herself. If she could afford it, she would probably have, all of us would, have an in-house masseuse to do it for her. But she’s worked out a way that she can get some of the same benefits just by herself, and she really does think that the… and for nothing else, somebody, a hard skeptic is gonna say “well, there’s not really that much evidence that massage works” and there are people who will say that. You can’t deny that just for stress relief and the relaxation, and that feels good and that itself rebounds down into the immune system and it does matter. It’s gonna have long term benefits so… [laughs]
Ben: Yeah, you get into Olga’s diet, and I’m actually gonna let people read about that themselves in the book because we talk about diet a lot on this show and I think there are some other interesting things you get into in the book, and I wish we had two hours to talk here. But rather than focusing on the diet component, which is actually a fascinating chapter, and again I think folks just need to go grab the book and read through that if you wanna see some Olga’s little diet things that she’s doing. I thought that even more interesting than that was the personality traits. You actually have an entire chapter that goes into the personality traits associated with longevity, and how if you score high versus low on certain traits, it can influence your longevity. Now, what would you say, you go over a bunch of them but what would you say is the most important personality trait that you could have when it comes to living longer?
Bruce: Hmm. Well there are personality traits that correlate with longevity and there are personality traits that correlate with performance. So if you could sorta be in the sweet spot there and have the sort of perseverance and those kind of traits that all high performers have, and then the kid of traits that correlate with longevity are things like the ability to quickly relax. It sort of like… how do I frame this up?
Ben: I think you describe it as almost like conscientiousness.
Bruce: Well, that’s one aspect of it. The other one is sort of, one of the dimensions they mentioned from personality test is neurotic versus non-neurotic, and non-neurotic people do better generally. It’s a stress management thing.
Ben: Non-neurotic people.
Bruce: Yeah, non-neurotic. You don’t wanna be, what do you want, to live as long as Jack Johnson, you know? Probably, all things being equal. But you’re right, there’s a conscientiousness and an openness to experience that strangely correlates with longevity too, and openness is one of the prime dimensions in some of these personality tests. That just means when you encounter something you haven’t seen before, you tend to naturally view it as a challenge rather than a threat, right? It’s something that you can grow from rather than something you need to worry about as an obstacle, and that’s a pretty deep-seated temperamental trait that we can develop to some degree, but I think we’re born with that to some degree, too. Not something as a so-called novelty gene that we can be born with.
Ben: That seems to correlate well to something you hear thrown around a lot right now and kind of like the ancestral-primal movement and that’s this concept of play.
Ben: Of just basically being open to going out and exploring your environment, learning new things, kinda even if something might seem intimidating to you, still being open to trying it out?
Bruce: Mmhmm, yeah. And in fact, in ancestral context it’s sometimes called a novelty gene, the migration gene. People who tend to explore, some of them died en route, some of them found America, they tended to have that novelty gene. But when I think of Olga’s personality and that nexus of staying power and longevity and high-performance, I think of her as a warrior-mench. And the warrior part is basically the proclivity to have all the high performance part of your personality and the mench is the unlikely partner of that, and that’s sort of a giving nature and having a high dimension of service.
Bruce: And so you don’t think of a warrior being thoughtful like that, but when you have a high dimension of the will to serve and to be helpful and not just self-centered, that correlates with longevity too.
Bruce: I’m not sure we know why for sure, but it does.
Ben: I just finished a book actually, called “The Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety” by one of my friends, Charlie Hoehn. And in that, he has an entire chapter devoted to kinda practical ways that you can engage in giving and how that’s one of the best things that you can do for anxiety and stress, whether it be charitable giving, whether it be volunteering, whether it be giving of your time to children or family, but yeah, giving seems to really help.
Bruce: Right? There’s another book called “Give and Take” by Adam Grant who’s a business prof at the Wharton School and it’s all about that too. The power giving rather than taking, and it seems counterintuitive but I like when you can put some hard science behind it and say people who give live longer, they’re healthier.
Bruce: And so even though we don’t know necessarily what the mechanisms are, we know that that’s the outcome, and so you add that as a dimension of your personality. And also that’s something that can be developed, it’s not like you’re a good guy or you’re not, you can be better. [laughs]
Bruce: So we can.
Ben: Yeah. Just a quick note for folks if you’re listening in, if you go to bengreenfieldfitness.com no matter when you’re listening to this interview and just do a search there for Olga, O-L-G-A, you’ll be able to see some of the show notes for this episode. In those show notes, I have a video where you can see Olga and see what she looks like and see what she’s doing. Head over there and check it out, but while I still have you on the call Bruce, I actually had one other question for you if I could.
Ben: And that is that what you talk about towards the end of the book, where you discuss how the future would look. Like if we wanted to change our environment to maximize longevity, we want to change our culture to maximize longevity, what are some of the things that will kinda change compared to how things are now?
Bruce: Hmm, well I actually went to a lot of people, gerontologists and so on, that I spoke to, I would always ask them “how would you, if you were designing the nursing home or extended care facility of the future, how would you design it?” And some of the answers to that kind of speak towards what you just asked, and one of them is people need to have more control over their environment. More of the sense that they’re not a cog in the wheel or a rat in the maze, that they have some sense of personal agency. What they do matters, in a bigger sense they have more a sense of purpose, that they’re not just working for the man, but they also have a certain degree of freedom to do what they want and what their conscience tells them to do. And so they need to have that level of control. And then on more mundane level, they need to be able to move around. So much of environment, our work environment particularly, we just sit and then we think we can take the pill of a one hour run or a half hour run in the morning and that will be enough to counteract the 23 hours of total inertness that we experience. We now know that that’s not a paradigm that can work, so we need to find ways that people can be in motion a little bit more throughout their day.
Bruce: And you see it now with people trying to do things like standing desks and treadmill desks. They’re trying to… I think there’s enough evidence that we can’t just be sitting somewhere. We’d rather try to be alive in the world and moving around and using our bodies, so there’s two things that I think our environment have to look a little bit different and we have to set up different conditions for how we get through our days.
Bruce: Otherwise we’re gonna get sick… sicker.
Ben: Are you standing right now?
Bruce: I am.
Ben: Good, me too. [laughs]
Bruce: That’s just because I got tired of sitting. [laughs]
Ben: Me too. Well, this is fascinating and again, folks, I actually mentioned Bruce’s book, it made such an impression on me. I mentioned it in my recent Primal Con presentation down in Mexico, I mentioned it over at Paleo(f)x to a couple of questions I got on anti-aging and longevity, I’ve recommended it a few times on the show before, and when I recommend a book that many times, it means it’s probably one you should go check out. So give it a read, it’s a fun book, it’s not so scientific that it’s gonna make your head hurt but it still delves into some of the genes and the science and the brain scans, and some of the really cool stuff along with the personality traits and some of the more qualitative things that you can do to maximize longevity. So excellent book, again it’s called “What Makes Olga Run?”. I’ll link to it in the show notes so you can check it out, I’ll also put a video in the show notes, this will all be over at bengreenfieldfitness.com where you can see a little bit more about Olga. And Bruce, thank you so much for coming on the call today.
Bruce: Yay. It was really my pleasure. Hopefully we can both be a little more Olga-like in our lives.
Olga Kotelko (see video below) is not your average ninety-five-year-old.
She not only looks and acts like a much younger woman, she holds over twenty-three world records in track and field, seventeen in her current ninety to ninety-five category. Convinced that this remarkable woman could help unlock many of the mysteries of aging, my guest on today’s podcast, Bruce Grierson, set out to uncover what it is that’s driving Olga.
He considers every piece of the puzzle, from her diet and sleep habits to how she scores on various personality traits, to what she does in her spare time to her family history. In the book “What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives“, Bruce details how Olga participates in tests administered by some of the world’s leading scientists and offers her DNA to groundbreaking research trials.
What you’ll get to hear today is not only a tremendously uplifting personal story but a look at which parts of our health and longevity are determined by the DNA we inherit at birth, and which parts we can shape ourselves. You’ll discover how your genes, opportunities, and choices forge the course of your life, especially during your golden years.
During our discussion, you’ll discover:
-The fascinating story of Olga and how she has defied aging…
-How to discover if you have the the Superstar gene, the Worrier gene or Warrior gene, and how this affects your longevity…
-One big myth about stress, adversity and aging…
-What Bruce thinks about the new class of telomere activating drugs…
-Why plaques in your brain may not be as big an issue as you may think…
-The single cognitive-boosting activity that is far more important than Sudoku, crossword puzzles and brain games…
-When it is too late for exercise to make a difference…
-The surprising truth about exercise intensity…
-Why sleeping steadily 8-9 hours through the night may not actually be necessary for longevity…
-A trick that Olga does with an old wine bottle that keeps her joints young and supple…
-The single most important personality trait for achieving long age…
-How you can change your living and working environment to maximize longevity…
What do you think? If you have questions, comments or feedback for author Bruce Grierson or any of the anti-aging tips you learn in the episode, leave your thoughts below…
…and be sure to grab your copy of What Makes Olga Run?: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives.