June 15, 2008
115-Year-Old Had Perfect Brain Function
Scientists say the world's oldest living person, 115-year-old Hanrikje van Andel-Schipper, had a sharp mind right up until her death in 2005. A post-mortem brain analysis revealed little signs of Alzheimer's or other diseases commonly linked with diminished mental ability.
Indeed, the Dutch woman often joked that pickled herring was her secret to longevity.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Van Andel-Schipper was the world's oldest living person until her death in 2005 in the Dutch city of Hoogeveen.
The scientists were somewhat surprised at the results of the analysis, said lead researcher Gert Holstege, a professor at Groningen University.
"Everybody was thinking that when you have a brain over 100 years, you have a lot of problems," Holstege said during a telephone interview on Friday with The Associated Press.
"This is the first (extremely old) brain that did not have these problems," he said, referring to a common hardening of arteries and the build up of proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease.
In 1972, the then 82-year-old van Andel-Schipper contacted the University of Groningen to make arrangements to donate her body to science upon her death. Concerned she may no longer be of interest because of her age, she made the call again at age 111.
At that time Holstege began testing Van Andel-Schipper's cognitive abilities at ages 112 and 113. While he observed some eyesight problems, mentally she performed better than the average 60- to 75-year-old.
Dr. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University's Center for Aging, which was not associated with the research, said it is valuable and unusual.
To begin with there are very few "super-centenarians", people over the age of 110, alive at any given time. This provides little opportunities to study brains as old as hers, he said.
"It's very rare to be able to do not only a post-mortem, but also be able to have tested her two, three years before she died," Doraiswamy, an Alzheimer's expert, told the AP.
"For a scientist, getting the opportunity to study someone like that is like winning the lottery."
He said the proportion of brains with some buildup of proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease typically increases with age. Experts believe that anyone living long enough will eventually get them.
Upon van Andel-Schipper's death, the director of the elderly home where she was living declined to provide a cause of death due to her advanced age. But Holstege said she had died of cancer.
"She died from stomach cancer, and you and I can also die from stomach cancer," he said, adding that van Andel-Schipper's case demonstrates that very elderly people die of diseases, not merely old age.
"It is very important to treat the elderly as normal people, as if they are 50 or 60."
Holstege said van Andel-Schipper received surgery and treatment at age 100 for breast cancer, and survived another 15 years.
Van Andel-Schipper, born in 1890, weighed only 3.5 pounds at her birth in 1890, and was so small her mother expected her to die in infancy. She had no children, and her husband passed away in 1959.
Her longevity appears to be genetic. Her mother died at the age of 100, and all of her siblings lived past the age of 70.
With a sharp sense of humor, Van Andel offered her advice on how to live a long life.
"Keep breathing," she said.
Holstege's findings will be published in the August edition of Neurobiology of Aging.