Is orienteering the key to healthy ageing?

by Frida Fart, PhD student

Orienteering is an endurance-running sport involving navigation in diverse terrain with the help of a map and a magnetic compass, demanding considerable cognitive skills and physical endurance of its practitioners. From a healthy-ageing perspective the sport is interesting as several seniors practising the sport have reached a high age. The oldest individual we interviewed was 94 years old and was still competing. Moreover, the sport involves physical activity, a cognitive challenge and a social network – three components that have been found to be particularly important for healthy-ageing. Indeed, in an earlier paper it was shown that senior orienteering athletes do rate their health and well-being higher compared to the general older population. They were also found to suffer from less gut problems and less signs of anxiety and depression. We therefore decided to follow up these results and in the study that was published earlier this fall we investigated the gut flora in relation to several health parameters and diet.

In the study we found that senior orienteering athletes had a higher level of a bacteria called Faecalibacterium prausnitzii in their gut flora. This bacterium has in experimental studies been proposed to be important for intestinal barrier function, the ability of the intestine to act as a barrier towards foreign substances that we are exposed to through the food. This particular bacterium is important for the production of butyrate, one of the major sources of nutrients for the colonic cells in the intestine. The increased level of this particular bacteria might potentially correspond to a higher level of butyrate. However, this cannot be concluded in this study as butyrate is almost impossible to measure. We did also observe that older individuals that practise orienteering had lower levels of two strains that has been associated with poor gut health. In addition, our observations seemed to be independent of diet and more dependent on lifestyle, such as physical activity. Hence, our data support previous findings proposing that physical activity on its own can affect the composition of the gut flora. Even though this is an exciting finding it is important to note that this is an observational study and we only investigate one time point in the long life of the senior orienteers. To be able to draw the conclusion that our findings are independent of diet we need to repeat these findings in a larger cohort and follow these individuals over time. It is also important to remember that a large part of the composition of the gut flora is still unknown and the characteristics of what constitutes a healthy gut microbiome needs to be defined. Thus, it is impossible to clarify what our findings mean for the ageing process, but it is evident that senior orienteers are an exciting model to further study healthy-ageing.