Curiosity about aging, stimulated by many long-lived relatives, motivated my research from the beginning. For many generations, some of them lived to age 90 or more. As a child I was intrigued by how differently people age, so that some retained mental clarity and memory into advanced old age while others began to fail 20 years earlier. Was this mostly hereditary, or also the result of nurtured expectations for high mental performance throughout life?

Born in 1939 I thrilled to hear elderly relatives recall the days before 1900. Only six generations of passed-on stories brought me to the days when my grandmother’s great-great-grandfather was kidnapped by British soldiers. I regretted that no family yarns had come down from even earlier times. Once I calculated that the Roman Empire had ended only 80 generations before mine.

The idea of doing research on the mechanisms of aging came when I was a...

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