This week was full of encouraging news for midlife athletes determined to avoid the creeping decrepitude once considered an inevitable part of one's forties, fifties and the years beyond. Initially, I was cheered by 40-year-old swimming sensation Janet Evans qualifying for the Olympic trials in both the 800-meter and 400-meter freestyle events nearly a quarter-century after her heroics in the 1988 games in Seoul. But Evans' defiance of the supposed limitations of age was followed by other news dispatches that suggest the rest of us can emulate her example.
Case in point: University of New Hampshire researchers' surprising discovery that regular runners in their sixties can match the efficiency -- that is, economy at utilizing oxygen to maintain a given running pace -- of athletes 30 or more years younger, even though they take in less oxygen. The study also found that older runners tended to have weaker muscles and less flexibility, which explained why it seemed harder for them to run as fast as their younger counterparts. But UNH associate professor Timothy Quinn, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, explains that those problems can be improved with more time in the weight room and on the yoga mat. "It doesn't take a lot to maintain strength," he says. "We need to set up programs that enhance strength....they'll be better runners for it."
Meanwhile, The Week reported on a recent study of older athletes' ability to retain their muscle mass, strength and lean body weight as they aged. Again, the traditional wisdom has been that middle-aged jocks tend to suffer precipitous declines in their buffness, not only losing heft from their biceps and quads and the like, but also having their musculature increasingly infiltrated by fat. But when University of Pittsburgh researchers tried to confirm that assumption, they instead found that athletes in their seventies and even eighties had almost as much muscle mass in their thighs, and only a minor increase in fat. Lead Pitt researcher Vonda Wright notes: "The changes we assumed were due to aging and therefore were unstoppable seem actually to be caused by inactivity." That, she said, is something that can be changed.
Want to Stay Young Mentally? Hit the Books: In The New York Times Education Life preview, Patricia Cohen writes that brain researchers discovered a potent elixir for staving off age-related declines in mental sharpness. "For those in midlife and beyond, a college degree appears to slow the brain's aging process by up to a decade," she notes. But researchers also have found that middle-aged subjects who left school but remained intellectually curious -- attending lectures and reading and writing on their own -- did as well on tests of mental abilities as those who earned degrees.
Young Boomers More Common Than Older Ones: From the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College's Facts Database, here's an intriguing, oft-overlooked fact about the baby boom: The youngest boomers -- people born in 1964 -- number about 4.6 million. That's nearly twice the number (2.7 million) born in 1946, the first year of the post-war population surge. I wrote in this space back in 2010 on Generation Jones, the term cultural historian and marketing expert Jonathan Pontell coined to describe those of us boomers who were born after 1954. We're actually the largest single age demographic contingent in the population, amounting to 26 percent of Americans, compared to 15 percent for older boomers. And as Pontell and others have noted, our cultural point of reference, economic situation and worldview tends to be very different from our older brothers and sisters.
Think You're Too Old to Write Your First Novel? Guess Again: The Huffington Post Books section offers this encouraging list of seven great authors who proved that it's never too late to start a successful writing career. Chances are you're already familiar with some of these writers, such as Frank McCourt, who published Angela's Ashes, his classic memoir of his impoverished childhood in Depression-era Ireland, when he was in his mid-sixties.
Blogging as Therapy: Plan B Nation's Amy Gutman argues in this post that blogging is an effective way to help yourself through a midlife crisis induced by suffering through downsizing and under-employment. Gutman speaks from experience: "Simply put, blogging about my story has transformed my relationship to it. It's gone from being a source of suffering to being my subject." Another big benefit of blogging, she notes, is that it can help a person develop a new support network of readers, and thus avoid the feeling of isolation that often sets in after losing a job.
Who Knew Obama Could Sing? Here's the president, apparently on a bet, doing a surprisingly good version of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" at a fundraiser on Thursday at Harlem's famous Apollo Theater. "Those guys didn't think I would do it!" he says, laughing.
Passings: While we're on the subject of R&B, the genre lost two giants this week. Singer Etta James, whose sultry, anguished voice influenced singers from Tina Turner and Bonnie Raitt to Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, died this week at 73. Johnny Otis, who passed away at age 90, helped fuse big band swing with gospel and blues to create R&B in the 1940s. He also played the drums on Big Mama Thornton's original 1952 version of "Hound Dog" and wrote songs that became hits for Gladys Knight, Eric Clapton and others. Though of Greek immigrant descent, Otis -- who had his first hit with "Harlem Nocturne" in 1945 -- proudly referred to himself as "black by persuasion." (See video below.)
Punk Rock Pioneers Crowd-Surf Into Midlife: Phoenix New Times' Melissa Fossum catches up with members of 1980s punk bands Youth Brigade and the Adolescents, whose raw, unadorned three-chord rock and provocative lyrics provided a soundtrack for the lives of a lot of then-alienated younger boomers. While a lot of anti-heroes of that era burned themselves to the wick with their physically reckless onstage antics and offstage substance abuse, a surprising number of them not only survived, but still are making music and touring. Fossum theorizes that punk refuses to die because it's too hardheaded to quit, but Adolescents' singer Tony Brandenberg thinks it's the increasingly middle-aged audience -- many of them the same people he's been seeing in the mosh pit for 30 years -- who keep the genre vital. "We play music for people who don't expect culture food to be spoon-fed to them," he explains. "They want to take the spoon and feed themselves. If they don't like what's on the spoon, they're going to throw the spoon at us."
Post-Heart-Attack Sex Has Low Risk: According to this WebMD dispatch, a New American Heart Association report says it's generally safe for cardiac patients to engage in strenuous activity between the sheets as soon as a week after having a heart attack, provided that their condition is stable and they're not experiencing chest pains. Baylor College of Medicine professor Glenn N. Levine says the misconception that sex is dangerous for recovering hearts probably stems from "the rare, sensationalized cases of politicians and other celebrities dying during sex." (Example: Nelson Rockefeller.) The report does warn that erectile dysfunction drugs and nitrates, which are used to treat chest pain, don't mix well, and that men who use an ED drug should refrain from taking nitrates within 24 to 48 hours of sex.
Last Word: "I like the nighttime rituals: Put on nice pajamas, brush hair, apply lotion, floss, watch some TV, take a sip of water, leave Target, go home." -- Emmy-winning SNL writer and 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation actress Paula Pell, via Twitter
Bonus Video: Here's Johnny Otis performing his most famous song, "Willie and the Hand Jive," in the 1959 movie Juke Box Rhythm.