More than 8100 participants registered for this year's World Masters Athletics Championships – the World Championships of senior athletes – in Málaga, Spain, from 4 to 16 September 2018. And here it is not only athletes like the 102-year-old Italian Giuseppe Ottaviani or the 102-year-old Man Kaur from India who are considered senior athletes, but any sports people from the age of 35. "These competitions are at the highest level," says Jörn Rittweger from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). "These top athletes are very interesting to us." During the championships, the doctor of space medicine is carrying out a study on precisely these qualified athletes: The Masters Athletics Field Study 2018 (MAFS 2018) researches age-related changes such as that in skeletal muscle connective tissue, the properties of blood vessels, as well as heart size and function. The aim is to investigate if and how regular sports exercise improves cardiovascular health and metabolism. A comparison with the health of astronauts is then also possible – in this case caused muscle and bone loss due to microgravity.
"From our point of view, the World Championships and their athletes cover all the key aspects of muscle function: the power, for example, of discus and hammer throwers, the use of oxygen by long-distance runners, the short-term supply of energy in sprinters and the mechanical storage of energy, for example, in the long jumpers," explains DLR physician Jörn Rittweger. For two weeks, a team from DLR and the University of Málaga will talk to athletes in different age groups and invite them to participate in the study.
Muscle performance, heart volume and calorie consumption
Participants in the study will undergo a number of examinations and measurements. Using ultrasound the scientists want to measure calf muscle tissue and its mobility to determine age-related effects on muscle performance. Measurement of blood pressure near the heart aims to illustrate the extent to which exercise keeps arteries elastic in old age. Ultrasonic examination of the heart should provide data on, among other things, the size of the heart and its capacity. The amount of calories burned at rest will also be measured, and other aspects such as life satisfaction and sleep quality will be recorded in questionnaires.
Since 2001, scientists from the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine have been using European and World Championships for Senior Athletes to compile datasets to explore age-related health. “There are very few studies of this performance level. Questions such as what causes muscular atrophy in old age or how much exercise is needed to compensate for the effects of ageing have not been adequately investigated,” stresses Rittweger.
Comparison with astronauts and patients
The data collected on the senior athletes is also useful for comparison with other test persons being examined at DLR. The ‘Sarcolab’ experiment at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine is investigating muscle loss in astronauts, whose performance is measured prior to and following their space mission. Long-term studies are also in progress into muscle and bone loss induced by limited movement and controlled conditions in healthy volunteers undergoing bed rest studies, as in for example disease-related bed restraint. “From the age of 30 to the age of 80, jump performance drops by 50 percent; during a bed rest study, the test subjects lose about 20 percent of their jump performance for a short time,” MAFS study director Rittweger offers as one comparison.