In search of eternal youth -Tanja Taivassalo is studying muscular aging with unusual top athletes

It is thanks to a sporty lifestyle, and especially her hobby of running inspired by her father, that Tanja Taivassalo is now a professor in kinesiology at the highly-ranked McGill University in Montreal.

Tanja Taivassalo works at the department of kinesiology; a place of diverse research on human anatomy, physiology, psychology and dietetics. The word kinesiology comes from the Greek word for movement and refers to the study of muscle movement.
Taivassalo specializes in muscle diseases and the affects of exercise in curing them. She studies the power plants of muscle cells, mitochondria, and what happens to a body when these do not work properly.

-My work is really interesting, but also demanding. Besides being able to do competitive research professors are required to do some teaching. That part is fun, as long as you teach something that you yourself find interesting, Taivassalo says.

The young professor has studied at McGill herself. She was born in Finland and educated in New York, but was looking for an eligible university in Canada. According to her, she ended up at the only internationally known university in the country. Her plan was to study biology and end up researching exotic animals.

During her studies Taivassalo was competing in the cross country team. Besides training with the team, she would run every morning at 6am with her father, who has always been an enthusiastic runner himself.

A summer job took Taivassalo to work in the Toronto zoo, where, besides teaching the public, she also took care of some baby gorillas. –In that job I decided that I would do my masters in veterinary medicine.

Track and field led to a new field

After getting back to school, Taivassalo worked at the university museum researching frogs and lizards -and coincidentally, their mitochondria. She kept doing cross country and many times during the late night practice she would see a light in the windows at one of the campus buildings around the track. She got interested and finally started talking with a professor through an open window. He told her about a research project at the institute of neurology. Taivassalo soon changed her major and started working for the very same project. The passionate runner had found a field of study, where her interests with sports and biology were combined.

Research topic from a sports competition

Taivassalo is still competing in marathons, although past injuries and intense work have slowed down
the pace. In the winters she enjoys skiing at the hills of Mont Royal.

The common interest in running of the father and the daughter is the reason behind Tanja Taivassalo´s
new research project as well. In 2009 she was in Lahti, Finland, to cheer her father in the masters´championships. There she met then 91-year old Olga Kotelko, who made 11 new world records in Lahti in her age class.

-Her performance is in a class of its own. She would throw the javelin about 6 meters longer than the
lady who placed second. In the masters championships in Sydney Olga ran 100 meters in 23.9
5, that is faster than most of the finalists in the age class of 80-84-years.

The Researcher in Taivassalo raised its head and she invited Olga to tests to Montreal. The research
on elderly top athletes got underway. Taivassalo is right now doing tests on a peer group of elderly
atheletes, who do not have the same physical competence as Olga does.

-The biopsies show that the difference between the muscle cells of Olga and peer group is notable. At
this point we cannot say what makes her so special. She has not exercised in her life significantly and did
not start competing in track and field earlier than the age of 75.

The research of elderly athletes will be Taivassalo´s first project together with her husband Russ, who
also works at the same department. –Russ studies the aging of muscle overall and I have previously
concentrated on muscle diseases. Now we will combine our knowledge and will study the muscles
of physically really fit elderly. We will try to find out, for example, why the mitochondria get less and
muscles grow smaller when we grow older. Is the multiple mitochondria possibly genetics and how
could one improve it.

Taivassalo is excited about her new research, which is at the top of its field.
-No matter how active life a person would live, the activity of the mitochondria is bound to get less and
the muscle mass grow smaller. This has not happened at the normal pace in Olga, or other elderly top
athletes. We are trying to find a reason behind this.

The research group is hoping to get a group of 20-30 elderly top athletes for tests and biopsies. –The
research can give light as to why the muscle nerves die and in the future help in developing medical
treatment for muscle diseases. The research is only about to start, but that is what we are aiming for in
the long run, Taivassalo says.

-Already before the results it is safe to say that exercise has an important role in sustaining the muscle mass, says the sporty professor.

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