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June 4, 2008

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Published: June 04, 2008

Did you know that the ocean quahog, an unassuming mollusk native to the Atlantic Ocean, has the longest recorded lifespan of any living organism at 220 years? Or that the brain at 60 holds four times the amount of information than a 20-year-old brain?

These are just two fascinating tidbits I picked up at the "Amazing Feats of Aging" exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, showing through Sept. 7.

The carnival-themed hall is broadly divided into three themes: a focus on how different animals age, what we can do to age gracefully and how the brain ages.

The "scariest" part of the exhibit, according to many a concerned fifth-grader from Woodlawn Academy in Chatham, who were on a field trip Thursday, is the digital-aging machine. By capturing a picture of your face and mapping out certain features, the machine forecasts what you will look like in 25 years.

"That's my grandmother!" cried Rosemarie Percario after seeing her projected 60-year-old self. Presumably, her grandmother is more than 25 years older, and so the "after" pictures are a little premature. I certainly hope so.

Nickelodeon-style exhibit posts highlighted healthy-living choices that may help stave off those impending wrinkles.

Some suggestions come as no shock. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Exercise. Floss, as plaque buildup can enter your bloodstream and cause serious health complications. Don't smoke.

But the exhibit wasn't all boring prescriptions for how to avoid getting older. Because, not to be fatalistic or anything, you can't.

Interactive elements like the "aging machine" make the exhibit very engaging, and good for getting kids to "learn in a fun way," said Ryan Barber, director of marketing and external affairs for the museum.

A pin-ball type game allows players to battle "free-radicals" (that bear remarkable resemblance to ping-pong balls) - natural byproducts of biological processes containing a reactive form of oxygen - while informing museum-goers that consuming antioxidants naturally found in many fruits can help outside the exhibit walls.

A few moms along with their fifth-graders got a kick out of what could be called the "generation-determination wall."

"I actually owned that," Deborah Reynolds said to her son Lawrence, pointing to a Monkees album, which put her in the "at least 40 years of living" category.

I easily picked out cell phones, definitely recognized Papa Smurf, but was a little stuck when it came to identifying the butter churner.

That human brain of ours never fails to amaze me, and this exhibit pointed out a few things I didn't know.

Humans are the longest-living land mammals, but definitely not the largest; the single most determinant factor in longevity, a display reads. Some scientists suggest maybe it has something to do with our brain capacities. (Maybe because we've developed so many miracle drugs?)

The "brain-themed" part of the exhibit has information on memory, capacity and Alzheimer's disease. Statistics showing that airplane pilots, as they age, take longer to make decisions but usually make better ones, highlights how the brain works. You can even test your own skills with a computerized speed and accuracy test of 27 questions.

The average response time for 18- to 29-year-olds was between 1 and 1.5 seconds. I clocked at 1.547, but scored 100 percent. So I'm just a tiny bit on the slow side, but I'm just going to go ahead and say it's because I'm just a little bit wiser.

• Contact Sarah Arkin at (434)791-7983 or