Jim Palmer and the Physiology of Aging


The experiment is over, and Jim Palmer, Oriole pitcher and perennial comeback artist, has really retired. Finally. For good.

This time he says his retirement is permanent. Blaming a strained right hamstring, Mr. Palmer apparently has decided that if he can't throw a curveball, then it's time he threw in the towel.

Now that it's over, I wonder what all the excitement was about. I suppose it is novel when a 45-year-old Hall of Famer pitcher decides to make a comeback and is serious enough to report to spring training camp. Judging by the media coverage, including the television networks, Mr. Palmer's unretirement generated a lot of interest, not only in Baltimore but across the country. But seriously, what's the big deal?

I'm sure nostalgia for the glory days of the Orioles, when Mr. Palmer was in his prime, accounted for the attention of many Baltimoreans. But my interest in Mr. Palmer's resurgent baseball career resulted from more than just impatience for the Boys of Summer to take the field; my professional interest was aroused as well.

As a physician specializing in the care of older people, I'm a student of the aging process. As a student, I want to know: Why? Not why did Mr. Palmer decide to try pitching again, but why do most professional athletes hang up their gloves, bats, sticks, cleats, helmets, etc. when they do? Why don't they play longer?

Don't let me mislead you. Mr. Palmer is not nearly the age I would consider "geriatric." On the contrary, he is positively youthful, not only in appearance and ability, but in age as well. In the United States, we take the traditional retirement age of 65 as the beginning of "old age;" many countries use 75 years of age as the marker.

Chronologically, therefore, Mr. Palmer has decades to go. But he has already started aging, largely in ways that are medically insignificant but that nevertheless may have reduced his chances of making the Orioles' pitching staff.

What changes or aging have already occurred in a 45 year old?

Some answers to this question have come from research performed here in Baltimore on the campus of Francis Scott Key Medical Center. There the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) was begun by Dr. W. W. Peter in 1958 to determine the changes in bodily functions and abilities that occur as we age. Subjects in the BLSA are volunteers who return to Baltimore every two years for a wide range of tests, ranging from blood studies to physical exams to exotic tests of physiological function.

The results have helped to separate changes intrinsic to the aging process from those that result from environmental factors (such as pollution) and disease. This knowledge is helping physicians define the limits of normal aging adulthood.

For example, peak aerobic exercise ability appears to decline beginning in the third decade of life. However, those who stay physically active. as Mr. Palmer has, experience a much slower decline in function than those who are sedentary.

jTC Probably even more important to his performance as a pitcher is Mr. Palmer's ability to throw a baseball very accurately and very fast. Perhaps of no surprise to Mr. Palmer's critics, BLSA studies of speed and accuracy of movement in men ages 20 to 70 demonstrate that the greatest accuracy is achieved at the age of twenty, although studies of arm strength did not show any significant decline until 70 (witness Nolan Ryan's fastball).

On the other hand, studies of the speed or crank turning, thought to measure coordination, showed a decline in men beginning at about age 40.

Did these studies and others pre-ordain that Mr. Palmer's quest to return to the majors was quixotic and doomed to failure? Was Mr. Palmer just too old even to try? Not at all.

First, the precise abilities needed by a pitcher to get a Bo Jackson to strike out or a Jose Canseco to pop up to the infield have not been studied, and we can only guess how the physiological changes that have been studied translate to the playing field.

Second, and more important, no one (not even Mr. Palmer) could have predicted how well he would do because studies of aging adults demonstrated repeatedly that there is tremendous variation in the way different human beings age. That is, while a given function declines on average, some individuals will show maintain their ability while others will demonstrate an even more precipitous decline than the majority.

Add to this the varying environments, diseases, nutrition and stresses human beings experience, and we find widespread divergence from the remarkably similar healthy newborns that we were at life's beginning.

Although Mr. Palmer may not be cheered by this thought, this is indeed good news, for it means that decline is not inevitable, and that we may have a lot to say about our health as we age. If we live right, eat right and are fortunate, we may enjoy a healthy and active life, regardless of age.

To my question of why professional athletes retire when they do, I propose this answer: by their early thirties many have lost just enough ability that they suffer in comparison to the latest 20 year-old phenom. (Compare Mr. Palmer's pitching to Ben McDonald's). Fortunately for most of us, these early and subtle changes of aging don't require us to change professions. Mr. Palmer has set us a good example: Use it or lose it.

James Richardson practices geriatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

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