Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper died at the ripe age of 115, but she did something for us all – she bequeathed her body to science.
Henny, as friends and family called her, was once considered the oldest person alive, and till her very last day of her life she had a sharp mind and was reasonably healthy.
Why did she live that long?
A new study suggests that as long as our stem cells have the capacity to keep on diving, our tissues are able to renew, but once the stem cells reach exhaustion, our body stops regenerating and eventually dies out.
When the famous centenarian died she only had two-thirds of the white blood cells remaining in her body and researchers have confirmed these originated from just surviving two stem cells, which means most of her blood stem cells were gone, reports NewScientist. Hendrikje’s blood telomeres were 17 times shorter than those found on brain cells, which also suggests her blood stem cells were exhausted.
The lack of dangerous mutations in her blood cells also suggests that this woman may had a system that excelled at getting rid of mutations that could lead to cancer or other diseases.
The study, published in Genome Research, is the first to explore how somatic mutations accumulate in elder individuals and the findings can help researchers identify a range of somatic mutations in normal tissues.
The results, however, won’t help us find the fountain of youth.
Although there is evidence of re-juvenation with re-injection of stem cells saved from birth, this may not work for all tissues. “If I took a sample now and gave it back to myself when I’m older, I would have long telomeres again – although it might only be possible with blood, not other tissues”, explained Henne Holstege of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam to NewScientist.
There are about 65 individuals over the age of 110 in the world, and they are considered supercentenarians. The first case appeared in the 1960s and studies suggest that 15% of them have no clinically demonstrable disease at age 100. A study from 2006, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that 41% of supercentenarias aged 110-119 require minimal assistance or were independent, and only 25% had a history of cancer (but all were cured!).
Some of them, such as Walter Breuning and Jeanne Calment smoked most of their lives, further demonstrating the incredible capacity of supercentenarian bodies to keep on churning new cells to keep their bodies reasonably heathly.