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The Secret to Longevity?

At age 99, retired college professor Helen Reichert still has a deep passion for music.

"I can't pass a piano without doing a little something," she said.

And a love for her late husband that, she says, no man will ever match. So Helen lives alone and likes it.

Does she think there's a chance of marriage after she turns 100? "Never occurs to me! Where am I going to find the man? He's going to be dead. He's going to be older than I am. What's he going to be, 102? Going to have false teeth, or he's going to be bald!" she said.

She is admittedly stubborn, with a sense of humor, but doctors say Helen Reichert may also hold the secret to longevity.

It's certainly not her habits. "I smoke. I don't go to the gym. I don't take exercise. I don't take vitamins," she said.

Doctor's say it could be her genes. A native New Yorker, Helen Reichert is part of a first-of-its-kind study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Research, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts, that could unlock the key to living longer.

"There's something in the genes that protect them," explained Dr. Nir Barzilai, who is studying a group of Jewish centenarians of eastern European descent. "It seems that the centenarians and their children have an unusually high level of what we call the good cholesterol."

Studies in the past in Asia and parts of Russia focused on environment and diet, but Dr. Barzilai's research revealed that HDL, or good cholesterol, in centenarians is twice that of others.

Helen's HDL is 103. The average middle-aged woman has an HDL level that is around 55.

Still, doctors say 70% of the keys to longevity are exercise and health diet. The other 30% is all genetics.

"To get to 100, to go the extra 20 years or so, I'd say you need these genetic booster rockets or these special genes," said Dr. Thomas Perls of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

And if they could put those genes in a bottle, scientists say they'll not only have the secret to longevity but be able to prevent diseases like cancer, too.

"My hope is that we will actually see the development of medications like this within the next 10 years or so that would allow people to age more slowly and either markedly delay or escape some of these terrible diseases like Alzheimer's," said Perls.

After 99 years the only thing that's slowed Helen Reichert down is a recent hip injury. She still enjoys big-city life. She said the best part of being 99 is, "Memories. You are so rich in memories. It is fantastic."

And memories that scan all of one century and the beginning of a new one. Now, with the help of science, one woman's secret could extend the lives of millions.

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