There are many ways to frame the forces that shape this Sunday’s Super Bowl – East Coast vs. West Coast, dynasty (the New England Patriots) vs. upstarts (the Los Angeles Rams).
But there’s an even more stark contrast in the matter of age. That is, we have 40-something quarterback Tom Brady for the Patriots vs. the Rams’ 20-something Jared Goff. Obviously, they’re both good at what they do (they’re in the Super Bowl, after all). But what to make of their 17-year difference? It’s the biggest age gap between starting quarterbacks in the history of the Super Bowl. Wisdom and experience surely count for something, but what effect does an additional 17 years of NFL-style wear and tear have?
As it turns out, age may not be an insurmountable foe. Given a highly specific set of circumstances (some of which are in your control, many of which are not), you, too, might enjoy an NFL career into your advanced years.
So we asked researchers: Does age matter? And if so, how?
“These are very difficult questions for the entire community,” said Madhusudhan Venkadesan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science.
Though he doesn’t specifically look at the effects of aging on the body, Venkadesan studies the biomechanics of animal movement and develops mechanisms based on those. One thing athletes seeking a long career must consider are the tendons and ligaments, which Venkadesan describes as “fantastic rubber bands that connect muscle to bone or bone to bone.” Unlike muscle and bone, tendons and ligaments have a very poor blood supply – that’s why when one tears, it takes so long to heal. It’s not so much time that affects the ligaments, but the things that happen over time.
“They’re constantly accumulating damage and your body is constantly repairing it,” he said. When the body repairs this damage, it often over-corrects. It’s the same process that allows you to build up muscle and strengthen tissue by working out.
“But if the rate at which you accumulate damage exceeds the rate at which you repair it, then you end up with very bad things happening,” Venkadesan said. “So it’s a balance of those two rates. And with age there is a good amount of evidence that the repair rate goes down.”
So age is a critical factor, right? Not necessarily. Look at long-distance runners.
“The top marathoners are not 20-something year-olds, they’re 30-something-year-olds,” Venkadesan said. “You have 40-year-olds running marathons that are two-and-a-half hours. Per kilometer, that’s each foot hitting the ground about 500 times, and it’s incredible that it can take such a beating but its not leading to massive tissue damage. That’s the trickiness of the whole system.”
OK, but a quarterback’s success depends a lot on reaction time – how does that fare with age? “The belief is that somehow the reaction time slows down, but there’s no smoking gun that’s shown up,” he said. “There are bits and pieces that suggest this may be true, but the evidence that aging slows us down is very difficult to unambiguously pin down.”
The Many Ways We Age
Morgan Levine, assistant professor in the department of pathology at the Yale School of Medicine, notes that chronological age (based on when you were born) differs from biological age, which may be a better way to predict one’s longevity. In her lab, they determine that with blood test that measures several biomarkers.
Levine notes that, while the usual indicators of aging usually decline at a steady rate over many years, the decline in performance among elite athletics tends to happen much more dramatically in a shorter period of time. “So the fact that Tom Brady is the age he is and still performing at that level is pretty remarkable,” she said.
When it comes to extreme slow aging, like the kind exhibited by centenarians or 41-year-old NFL players, Levine believes that genetics play an unusually high factor. Nonetheless, the types of aging that leads one to be 100 and another to be Tom Brady – while related – are not quite the same.
“It’s probably different processes,” she said. “You have multiple systems and organs and the ones that are going to keep you alive and allow you to live to extreme old ages might not be the same ones that matter to being Tom Brady and playing in the Super Bowl.”
Speaking of organs, what about the one that drives everything, the heart?
“The heart has many important changes with aging,” said Stuart Campbell, associate professor of biomedical engineering. “The tissue of the heart itself tends to become more stiff just like virtually every other tissue with aging.”
One of Campbell’s early studies looked at the hearts of rats and noted that with age came cellular changes and differences in the heart’s mechanical motions. Whatever Rams fans may say, however, Tom Brady is not a rat, and his heart is likely not of the common variety. “Exercise seems to mitigate or slow down some of these changes,” Campbell said.
Which explains some of it, but many other NFL players are pretty active. What allows Brady to keep going while others retire much earlier? Levine says it’s a combination of factors, some within your control, such as exercise and eating (Brady famously adheres to a strict workout and diet regimen – he even wrote a book about it). About 30% can be chalked up to genetics, and Levine notes that this could increase for elite athletes. In the case of the Patriot’s quarterback, there’s a good chance that it’s a combination of all these.
“For being able to perform at that level, I would say a lot of it is probably genetics, but it’s definitely not all genetics. It’s probably coupled with having good health behavior. And also some good luck.”
So there you go, the foolproof formula to NFL longevity: a dollop of good luck, inherit good genes, and do everything right.
Source: Yale University