L. Stephen Coles dies at 73; studied extreme aging in humans
L. Stephen Coles, a researcher who studied supercentenarians — the rare breed of humans who have managed to stay alive 110 years or more — has died. He was 73.
Coles, a physician who started his medical career delivering babies but was a computer scientist before he ever picked up a forceps, died Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., where his body was to be cryogenically preserved. He had pancreatic cancer.
“In the end, he decided he wanted to die with his boots on and maybe be able to take science forward one day,” his wife, Natalie, told the Times on Thursday.
In 1990, Coles founded the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group, a network of researchers from various disciplines who were intrigued by the outer limits of aging and how to reach them in reasonably good health.
Scouring press clippings and medical journals, Coles flew around the U.S. to interview the extremely old, verifying their ages with the help of Atlanta-based researcher Robert Young, who examined documents and built family trees to investigate claims that often proved spurious.
“We’ve found evidence of people wanting early Social Security, men claiming to be older in order to join the military, a woman claiming to be her aunt, some people just wanting to be famous,” said Young, who also researches claims of extreme old age for the book Guinness World Records.
With the database Coles established, he was able to draw a few cautious conclusions about extreme survivors. At the last update, as of Sept. 1, 2014, 74 women and two men worldwide were living and verified as being at least 110.
“They were very good at choosing their parents,” he told The Times in 2004. Genetics played a huge, though still unknown, role in longevity, he said, sometimes trumping the habits that theoretically should have killed the very old years before.
Elma Corning, one of Coles’ research subjects, died at a Hollywood retirement home when she was 112. Until her death in 2004, she had coffee and bacon for breakfast and, sometimes, a cocktail in the evening. Like other supercentenarians, she had little use for medicine. She was hospitalized once — in 1908, for a tonsillectomy.
In interviews with the family members, Coles discovered a resiliency and toughness even greater than the physical stamina that allowed a 103-year-old woman to practice as a pediatrician and a 106-year-old woman to drive.
“These people did not inwardize stress,” said Steven Clarke, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry who studies the physiology of aging. “They gave stress to others.”
A visiting scholar for several years at the UCLA Molecular Biology Institute, Coles lectured in Clarke’s department and taught at freshman seminars. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, he gave the youngest of the university’s students his Introduction to Gerontology: Secrets of the Oldest Old.
Born in New York City on Jan. 19, 1941, Leslie Stephen Coles graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., with a degree in electrical engineering. He went on to receive a master’s degree in mathematics from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and a doctorate in systems and communication sciences from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He studied medicine at Stanford.
In addition to his wife, , his survivors include Electra McBurnie, his daughter from a previous marriage.
As part of his research into aging, he studied autopsies on a number of supercentenarians and also collected blood and DNA samples for analysis.
“He had an in-depth knowledge of these people,” said Stuart Kim, a Stanford geneticist who recently collaborated with Coles and others on a paper about supercentenarians in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Although the researchers were unable to establish a distinct genetic similarity among the subjects, the samples that Coles gathered from 17 subjects will continue to be important, Kim said.
“The data are going to be used over and over again,” he said.
Whether Coles will personally continue his work is an open question. Johnny Adams, a colleague who ran the website for the Gerontology Research Group, said that Coles did RSVP to his birthday invitation.
The party is for Adams’ 100th birthday — in 2049.
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