There's Something About Mary

Eighty-two-year-old Mary Bowermaster is a world-class athlete. At the 1999 National Senior Games in Orlando - the Olympics for those over 50 - she blew away her competition on the track and set records in the high jump, long jump and shot put.

Correspondent Mike Wallace, himself 81, spent some time with Bowermaster to find out what she could tell him about the aging process.

The key, she says, is regular training. "You don't lay off it," she explains.

Bowermaster started competing late in life. She won her first event in 1980. Breast cancer was the catalyst that sent her to the track at age 63.

"After I had my mastectomy, I was just down and out and didn't know what to do with my life," she says. Competing "opened up a whole new world to me. The window just opened up."

Since then she's become a superstar, winning more than 450 medals. "I just loved it," she says of competing. "After I just got my first two or three meets under my belt, I thought, 'This is what I like to do; this is what I'm going to do.'"

Does Bowermaster have some intrinsic genetic advantage? She thinks so. "My grandmother lived to be 94," she says. "She was a pioneer woman....My father, he was 81 when he died."

But Dr. John Rowe, an expert on aging, says that there is more to the story than genes. "Genes are important," he says. "But they are clearly not the whole story."

Rowe says that genes count for about 30 percent of the equation when it comes to aging successfully. Lifestyle, he says, is far more important. Rowe says that Bowermaster's case shows this.

"She had breast cancer, and now she's functioning at a very, very high level," he says. "She shows us that there's more to successful aging than just avoiding disease. She has a great self image, a great sense of efficacy and mastery....And she exercises."

When Bowermaster was born in 1917, the average life expectancy in the United States was 51. A child born today can expect to live to 77. But Dr. Rowe says that in the 21st century, medical advances will eliminate many diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer's, and will extend lifespan dramatically.

Aging may even be reversible, Rowe says. Recent studies of animals suggest that cutting calories by a third appears to slow the aging process. Manipulating genes in mice makes them smaller but also doubles their lifespan.

And by growing human heart cells in a lab, researchers may one day be able to repair damaged hearts.

"What we're looking forward to is a time when we can regulate the basic processes of aging," Rowe says. "It may be that what we considered a normal lifespan up until now was premature death."

At that point, Bowermaster won't be the exception, but the rule. "Mary's going to have much more competition in the new millennium," Rowe says.

For now, the best way to stay young is to stay in shape. Reseachers say that you don't have to be as athletic as Bowermaster to see benefits. Moderate exercise, even walking, can be as good for you as a spirited tennis match.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of increased lifespan is not longevity itself, but greater enjoyment. Bowermaster is still getting a kick out of life and says she hopes to get to 100. "I'd love to if I'm still like I am now," she says. "I'd love to!"

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Web Story by David Kohn;