Aging Athlete Research

aging athlete research vonda wright md

Dr. Wright’s interests include both the clinical and basic science aspects of aging athlete research. Since the 2005 Senior Olympics, where she served as research coordinator, she has continued investigating musculoskeletal aging in the elite masters athlete including the effect of chronic exercise on bone density, lean muscle mass and cognitive function.

Masterful Care of the Aging Athlete

We often look to sports to define our heroes and role models. When you look at the ranks of modern athletes, from pros to weekend warriors, those aged 40 and older fill the roads and playing fields. They are redefining aging and making “40” the new “30.”

Sports Medicine has traditionally focused on care of the child, the female athlete, collegiate teams or pros while virtually ignoring the enormous ranks of athletes over 40 both clinically and via research.  The standard answer was simply to tell these athletes to stop doing what hurts them.

To address the needs of this, the largest growing group of active people in this country, the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine developed the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes (PRIMA).  PRIMA is the first medical program of its kind specifically designed to maximize performance and minimize injury in Masters Athletes.

Founded and directed by UPMC Center for Sports Medicine orthopaedic surgeon Vonda Wright, MD, PRIMA offers the expertise of many UPMC Center for Sports Medicine specialists, including Sports Performance director Ron DeAngelo, Mental Training director Aimee Kimball, PhD. and Sports Nutrition director Leslie Bonci, RD to athletes of all ages and skill levels from the adult-onset-exerciser, the once upon a time athlete, the weekend warrior and the true elite masters competitor.

In addition to the clinical and performance training programs, PRIMA has published a series of original research studies evaluating the role of chronic exercise on athletic performance, bone density and lean muscle mass.  Recreational masters athletes and senior Olympians, exhibit high levels of functional capacity throughout their lifespan and may represent the purest measure of aging without the confounding variable of disuse and sedentary living.

PRIMA research has received grants from the AAOS, AOSSM, the Ferguson Foundation and UPMC Orthopaedic Surgery department and studied more than 5000 masters athletes in the last 7 years.

The first PRIMA study evaluated performance times as a biomarker of aging and found that until age 75 performance times in all running distances, from 100m to 10,000m declined <2% per year.  After age 75, however, biology “took over” and performance times declined at approximately 8% per year. These results suggest that if disuse and disease are eliminated, individuals should be able to maintain high levels of function until 75 years of age (Wright, V. and Perricelli, B (2008).   “Age-related rates of performance decline in performance among elite senior athletes.”American Journal of Sports Medicine 36: 443-450).

aging athlete research on exerciseNext, PRIMA studies of bone density not only found that chronic exercise maintained bone density at normal levels until the 7th and 8th decade of life but that chronic impact exercise was as important as age, sex, BMI and family history in maintenance of bone density (Leigey, D., Irrgang, J., Francis, K.,Cohen, P. and Wright, V. (2009). “Participation in High-Impact Sports Predicts Bone Mineral Density in Senior Olympic Athletes.” Sports Health 1(6): 508-513).


aging athlete research lean muscle mass

Our most recent muscle study went viral in the internet running and triathlon community, was covered by national media sources including the New York Times, CBS news, Canada’s Globe & Mail and was downloaded more than 75,000 times from the publisher.

The PRIMA “Lean Muscle Mass” study found that chronic high level exercise prevented the loss of lean muscle mass, muscle strength and fatty infiltration of muscle commonly observed in studies of sedentary aging.  This study contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging. Our muscles are not destined to go from lean “flank steak” to “rump roast.” (Wroblewski, A., Amati, F., Smiley, M., Goodpaster, B and Wright, V. (2011) “ Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in Masters Athletes”  Physician and Sports Medicine 39:3)

The UPMC Center for Sports Medicine PRIMA program is leading the country in providing masterful care to aging athletes and dispelling the myth that aging alone means slowing down. Through a combination of scientific training, disciplined diet, and advanced sports medicine, they (masters-age athletes) are overturning immutable laws of biology, and they are reversing, or at least fighting to a draw, the aging process.


Hip Preservation Research

Hip Preservation is the most rapid growing frontier of arthroscopic sports medicine and offers athletes and active people of all ages the opportunity to return to the life they desire after injury or normal wear.   For the last 10 years, the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine has ranked among the leaders in expanding the science and surgical techniques in arthroscopic hip preservation.  We are proud to empower our patients to fight for their mobility through the best in sports medicine of the hip.

Providing our patients with the best care includes surgical acumen as well as pushing the boundaries of care through innovative research.

The UPMC Center for Sports Medicine Hip Preservation research program includes studies in three general areas:

1.        Harnessing the body’s healing capacity through biologic characterization of hip cartilage, labrum and ligament wear.

2.        Biomechanical evaluation of Femoral Acetabular Impingement and prediction of arthritis progression using 3D x-rays and robotics.

3.        Treatment Outcomes and evaluation of best practices through prospective and retrospective hip registries.

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