2003.11.26 Roaches don't age gracefully

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

IT’S TOUGH to grow old. Just ask a cockroach. Or put one on a treadmill and check out the decline for yourself.

Researchers in Cleveland have undertaken what they claim is the first detailed study on senior citizens of the insect world. They were surprised by the findings: Human and cockroach geezers are like peas in a pod, like larvae in the rice bag.

Angela Ridgel, who led the study, figured that cockroaches would just die off before they grew old and decrepit, but she was wrong. They just stumble on through the declining years.

Ridgel tossed a few youngsters into an open enclosure and watched them scurry for cover. They were frantic to find a hiding place. Then in went a handful of senior cockroaches and they just sat there. Eventually they would take a short walk and then stop again. Their scurrying days were over.

Ridgel wasn’t yet finished embarrassing these mature specimens. She set them on a cockroach-size treadmill and filmed their behavior. It was obvious the old ones were slower, but when she looked at closeups, she discovered some problems. Every now and then, one leg would get tangled up in the one behind it. This brought the bug to a standstill until the legs were untangled. Sound familiar?

And here’s the most discouraging news of all to those of us who no longer have the agility of a young cockroach. Ridgel tested the fleeing behavior of the old folks. This is a pretty rough fountain of youth medicine, but she found the older ones did a better job of fleeing after she cut off their heads.

I DID my own experiment a few weeks ago. I wanted to see if I could still act like a young cockroach, and I didn’t do too badly. At least not until a couple of days later.

Every year the cross country team runs through town on the last Friday morning of the last day of practice. They make a lot of noise and they must be rather annoying to those on their route through town.

We’ve known about this routine ever since Ben was in seventh grade, which must be nine years ago. There’s always been a lot of talk about joining in the antics when they pass our house, but it was always easier to sleep.

Last year Rosanna ran ahead of the group and got the hose going to spray the boys. This year she stayed with the group to allay suspicions and instead enlisted the help of two classmates to man the hose.

And this year I awoke and went to the basement to fetch a bucket. I filled it half full of warm water—I didn’t want to be cruel—and walked to the sidewalk, listening for the pitter-patter of feet. Or maybe I listened for the yelling and the stomping and the general carousing.

The guest hosers arrived, I showed them to their station and went on around the corner to hide behind the neighbor’s trash bin. When the runners arrived, I joined the pack and started throwing water. And then started running. I headed home, tore around the corner of the house and was promptly sprayed by a hose.

“Not me!” I yelled and went to hide in the back yard.

As the hose fight and dawdling continued, I went in for more water and tossed another bucket into the crowd. I sprinted for the front porch knowing my legs would tangle like an old cockroach but they didn’t. I made it inside and locked the door, panting and thinking that I’d won.

Two days later I didn’t feel as victorious. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and it’s the result of excessive muscle tearing. There’s a delay before the scar tissue forms. Once this new tissue is in place, there’s pain as it’s stretched out and flexibility is restored.

I experienced excessive DOMS for a few days, but I'm still quite pleased with my performance. I really couldn’t have performed better unless my head were cut off.  

    – Nov. 26, 2003 
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