Rodents that never age.
Human cells that never die.
New careers very late in life.
These were among the topics cited by Shane Burgess, the new dean of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the first lecture in the "Living Beyond 100" series. The series is presented by the UA College of Science.
Several local science teachers attended Burgess' talk, titled "Can We? And What If We Do?"
Today and in future weeks, we share their impressions.
Jeff Ofstedahl: "Immortal" cells and ageless aging
Is it good genetics, diet, exercise or simply one's outlook that enables some people to live to 100 and beyond?
It may be all of the above, but Burgess said two factors stand out: the ability to manage stress and obesity, which can more than double one's risk of dying early. He also said one set of behaviors were typical of centenarians: They don't dwell on stressful things.
Science is still trying to understand influences that can improve the odds for living beyond 100, Burgess said. Some cells, he said, never cease to replicate and thus are known as "the immortal cells." They may hold the key for ageless aging.
Normal human cells have a finite number of divisions built into their genetic code. Structures on the ends of our chromosomes, called telomeres, degrade with each replication, much like the quality of photocopy of a copy of a copy fades with each generation. Cancer cells, on the other hand, never cease to duplicate due to a chemical called telomerase.
At a post-lecture session, Burgess noted that people don't die of old age - they die of things like infection, cancer and other ailments. "We don't know what our biological limit is," he said
Brie Benjamin-Baker: Live to 100-plus? Heck, yes!
After the first "Living Beyond 100" lecture, I was looking over my son's homework from the day. He had written that he wanted to live to be 100.
I shared my gut reaction: "Can we? Heck, yes! And if we do, it will be a challenge, but an exciting one."
During the lecture, Burgess outlined ways to extend one's lifetime:
• Reduce caloric intake. Cutting back can add years, he said, "or maybe it just feels like we live longer."
• Drink, in moderation, more red wine, which contains resveratrol, a substance that induces the expression of several longevity genes.
• Roll with the punches.
Those who reach 100 will have to learn how to value a longer life without tiring of it. The most successful may be "opsimaths" - people who continue to learn things late in life. They'll need new knowledge as they continually reinvent themselves.
"Can and will our years up to and beyond 100 be really 'living'?" Burgess asked. "If so, then it will be reasonable to consider more than one complete career. Maybe we will have two or even three broad age cohorts at the UA. It's not about chronological age, but skills and experiences."
Ron Bernee: Clues to a very long life
Dying may be mutating into part of our past.
Have you heard of the naked mole rat? It never seems to age over a very long life - 10 times longer than mice. It may offer clues to our longevity.
Scientists are studying "immortalized" human cell lines, called HeLa cells, which have grown in laboratory cultures and never die, for more clues.
These are two of the many parts of the aging puzzle being pursued by scientists taking us closer to a quantum leap in increasing our life span.
One key to knowing if you'll make that leap: whether anyone in your family reached age 100.
"The best predictor of living to 100 is to have had long-lived relatives," Burgess said. About a third of people 95 or older have many long-lived family members."
"Maybe we should all go out and adopt a centenarian," he joked.
Josh Farr: To reach 100, chill out
I thought I knew the factors that can help us become a centenarian: exercise, eat healthy, don't smoke.
Being a 2004 graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I could grasp Shane Burgess' references to telomeres (a region of chromosomes with a role in cancer and aging), genomes and resveratrol.
I'm hip and "with it," right?
Sadly, based on evidence from interviews with centenarians, I didn't know that the importance of another factor in aging: how we act, behave and move onward in the face of challenges.
"Don't dwell on things," Burgess said. "Don't internalize stressful things. Let go. … It's not important whether centenarians have been exposed to a lot of stress, but how they've managed that century of stress."
So relish your own successes and live with the glass half full. If you do, you just may toast with your friends on your 100th birthday.
On StarNet: Find more coverage of science and technology at azstarnet.com/science
Upcoming 'Living Beyond 100' lectures
• "The Biology of Aging: Why Our Bodies Grow Old" on Tuesday.
• "The Aging of the Brain" on Feb. 7.
• "Repair, Regeneration and Replacement Revisited" on Feb. 14.
• Society, Geographic Change and the New Longevity" on Feb. 21.
• "Information and Immortality" on Feb. 28.
All lectures begin at 7 p.m. at Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. Parking is available at the Tyndall Avenue Garage, 880 E. Fourth Street.
For more information, call 621-4090.
Jeff Ofstedahl is a middle and high school science teacher and K-12 science director at the Center for Academic Success in Sierra Vista. He studied biological sciences at Northern Arizona University, graduated from NAU and is a UA graduate student in education. Brie Benjamin-Baker teaches biology, general science, child development and life skills at the statewide Primavera Online High School. She has a bachelor's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the UA. Ron Bernee teaches biology and AP Psychology at Sahuaro High, and has taught high school science in Tucson for 25 years. Bernee, who is from Chicago, studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Illinois and has done graduate study at UA. Josh Farr has taught biology, AP Biology, anatomy and physiology at Cienega High School in Vail. He received a microbiology degree and a master's in teaching and teacher education at the UA.