Better with Age
These Gators challenge traditional notions of what it means to be middle-aged and older.
By Sarah L. Stewart (BSJ ’05)
The majority of today’s elite swimmers weren’t yet born when Dara Torres (BSTEL ’90) earned her first Olympic medal nearly 30 years ago. But that hasn’t stopped 44-year-old Torres’ quest to compete in her sixth Olympic Games, defying conventional ideas of what it means to be a certain age.
The 12-time Olympic medalist , who racked up 28 All-America honors while at UF, garnered national attention at the 2008 Beijing games, when as a 41-year-old she clocked her personal best time in the 50-meter freestyle final, finishing .01 seconds behind the 24-year-old winner. In February, 16 months after reconstructive knee surgery, she qualified for the June 2012 Olympic Trials.
Torres, who has since authored two books (most recently last year’s “Gold Medal Fitness”), recalls the experience in her 2009 memoir, “Age Is Just a Number.”
“I didn’t win, but I set a new American record. Just as important, I upended the notion that a swimming career must end at age 25 or 35 or even 40 years old,” she writes. “Muscle tightening is not the only thing that happens in our bodies over time. We gain knowledge, focus and understanding, and those things can help us win.”
That revelation is likely welcomed by aging Americans, who as a group are living longer than ever: The average life expectancy of 78 is a full 10 years longer than in the mid-20th century, and many aren’t willing to dedicate those extra years to golf rounds and bridge games. At UF’s Institute on Aging, researchers are working to extend quality of life for older adults.
“The focus of our research is really maintaining independence of older people,” says Dr. Susan Nayfield, the institute’s division chief for clinical research.
The ’90s-era hip hop song blares from the arena speakers: “I said shake whatcha mama gave ya…” The petite blonde places a hand on each hip, one at a time, then waggles her derriere in unison with the rest of the dancers. The crowd roars.
The women execute some arm extensions, and finally, the pièce de résistance: The blonde trots to center court, clapping in time to the music, then slides into a split, fist thrust into the air in triumph. The dancers wave up at their fans, beaming.
A pretty typical basketball halftime show, right? But the Dream Supremes aren’t “boom-boom gals,” the term the group’s founder, Marcia Jaffe (BSADV ’71), uses for conventional, twentysomething cheerleaders.
The Dream Supremes are a senior dance troupe, a collection of about a dozen women in their 50s, 60s and 70s (and, new this season, two men). They perform for screaming fans during halftime and between quarters at the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream games. Wearing tight black pants and Dream T-shirts knotted at the hip, they break it down to hits from James Brown to Lady Gaga, shake the occasional pompom and, in the meantime, prove that even mamas and grandmamas can, when the mood strikes, shake what their mamas gave them.
Jaffe — who demurs when asked her age, but mathematically figures to be in her early 60s — started the troupe last year to build upon the Dream’s message of empowering women to stay fit at any age. But Jaffe, who walks four miles every day and works out four times per week, is more than just fit: As the group’s self-titled “renegade,” she serves as its chief stunt girl, ending each performance with a handstand, split, cartwheel, or some combination thereof.
“We do some gutsy stuff,” the retired advertising executive says. “A cartwheel into a split is dangerous at my age!”
The Long Run
Scott Ludwig* (BAE ’77, MA ’78) began running as a graduate student at UF in 1978. Since Nov. 30 of that year, the wiry 56-year-old hasn’t stopped — not for a single day. Rain or shine, sickness or health, the Peachtree City, Ga., resident has run daily for almost 33 years. He’s logged 124,000 miles, including 180 marathons and 50 ultramarathons. Only once, on a snowy Pennsylvania night in 1983, has he considered breaking his streak; but near midnight, he laced up his sneakers and ran three miles.
“I’ve never given it a second thought,” says Ludwig, who continues to average more than 70 miles per week. He credits his morning runs with clearing his mind before work as manager of a Porsche parts warehouse in Atlanta and with maintaining his college weight, a lean 150 pounds on his 5-foot 10-inch frame. Perhaps that’s why, with his eye on the 200,000-mile mark, Ludwig doesn’t plan on quitting.
“I’d like to have the longest streak in the world one day,” he says.
At his current pace, he’ll hit that mark sometime in his late 70s. And why shouldn’t he? If a dozen dancing seniors can bring an arena to its feet, and if a 41-year-old woman can become the oldest swimmer in history to stand on the Olympic podium, then what’s stopping Ludwig from setting records in his 70s? As dancer Marcia Jaffe sees it, nothing.
“They say 70 is the new 40,” she says. “As long as you stay in shape, and eat well… you just keep on keeping on, that’s how I feel.”
A Good Life
Research under way at UF aims to help all older adults continue to enjoy their chosen pursuits, be it swimming, cheerleading or simply playing with grandchildren. One example is the $64 million LIFE (Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders) Study, funded by UF’s single largest federal award. The six-year study partly aims to determine if regular exercise alone can help prevent mobility and cognitive impairments among seniors. Other studies assess the effects of a botanical supplement on weight loss, the pros and cons of people over 70 taking aspirin daily and the benefits of testosterone replacement therapy.
When the institute’s $15 million National Institutes of Health-funded complex is completed in 2013, an onsite geriatric clinic will make it easier for patients to participate in studies, turning research into real-life answers.
“The goal is really to prolong good life, not just to prolong life,” Nayfield says. It is a good life according to Stephen Grimes* (BSBA ’50, LLB ’54), an 83-year-old former Florida Supreme Court chief justice who still argues cases for his Tallahassee-based law firm. When Grimes retired from the court at the required age of 70, he wasn’t ready to give up his career.
“I still enjoyed working,” says Grimes, a partner at Holland & Knight. “My choice was to continue to do this as long as I felt like I could do it meaningfully.”
Today, this great-grandfather heads to the office three days a week to attend meetings or counsel younger lawyers on appellate issues. He spends up to 30 hours a week reading trial transcriptions, writing briefs and making oral arguments.
“When I argue before the court, they don’t give me any preference, and they shouldn’t,” Grimes says. “I do enjoy it, and I look forward to the next case.”
*UF Alumni Association member
To learn more about UF’s ongoing studies on aging, or to participate, call 866-386-7730 or visit the Institute of Aging’s website at www.aging.ufl.edu.