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Redefining longevity: the new centenarian spirit

The US centenarian population is doubling every decade – and they're redefining aging and longevity.

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Hoffmann agrees. "Every stage of life has its challenges and its beauties, and different forms of entertainment, from childhood on. There's no reason not to find things to do in life."

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As a 101-year-old porbate lawyer, Jack Borden often finds himself dispensing retirement and aging advice to people decades his junior.

"The reason I keep working, I think, is to stay alive," he says. When a February snowstorm in his hometown of Weatherford, Texas, kept him home, he adds, "I was climbing the walls."

In 2008, Mr. Borden was nominated the "Outstanding Oldest Worker" in Texas from a group called Experience Works. It surprised him, but it surprised him even more when he was awarded the 2009 national title.

Experience Works is a nonprofit that provides training and employment services for 30,000 over-55 workers nationwide. Trends toward later retiring, combined with a poor economy, means their services are in demand among the elderly.

"Some are low-income or nearly homeless, and they didn't expect to be in that situation," says Lita Levine Kleger, a vice president at Experience Works. "Some had successful careers; some had already retired; some have just had a whole sea change and they're faced with having to go back to work and learn new skills. It creates tremendous challenges, but I think it can create, really, a new beginning for those folks."

The group uses people like Borden as an example. "If you're 70 or 68 or 80 or even 90 [and] you're not quite confident in your ability to offer things," Ms. Kleger says, seeing a 100-year-old do it has got to open your mind.

Indeed, for some people, the extra years bring focus. Sam Katzoff, who describes himself modestly as "good at math," was trained as a chemist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the 1930s and was hired as a physicist at the agency that was to become NASA.

He retired in the 1970s, he says, when "we were interested in looking for life on Mars. I guess people are still looking for it."

But Mr. Katzoff, now 100 and living in an apartment by himself in a retirement community north of Baltimore, has devoted a lot of his recent thinking to an unsolved problem from his grad school days.

While his hearing is not good, and his voice threatens to be drowned out by the soft explosions of the small oxygen machine next to his overstuffed chair, Katzoff's bookshelf is stocked with science texts testifying mental pursuits such as the problem of a friend and fellow classmate at Hopkins who was unable to consistently reproduce a chemical reaction in an experiment. All these years later, Katzoff thinks he has worked out the missing variable: The lab was poorly lit. During the day, when the sun streamed through the windows, the reaction would occur. On darker days and at night it failed.

"It was the sunlight," he says, wistfully noting that he had the bonus years to discover it, but that his classmate, a friend since seventh grade, "didn't make 100."