Scientists have sequenced the DNA of a Dutch woman who lived to age 115, overcame breast cancer at the age of 100, and never showed signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, hoping that her genetic code might contain the secret to enjoying a long, healthy life.
According to Daniel Miller of the Daily Mail, the woman, Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was born in 1890 and was the world’s oldest person until her death in August 2004.
In addition to remaining mentally sharp throughout her life, Miller also notes that she never suffered from many of the other ailments “normally associated with people who live over the age of 100 such as hardening of the arteries.”
BBC News editor Helen Briggs says that the scientists, who presented their findings during the annual International Congress of Human Genetics in Montreal, Canada, over the weekend, believe that van Andel-Schipper had genetic protection against dementia.
They also suggested that additional studies could reveal clues in her DNA that could shed some light as to why certain people have greater longevity than others.
“Dr. Henne Holstege, of the Department of Clinical Genetics at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, says she appeared to have some rare genetic changes in her DNA,” Briggs wrote on October 14. “It is not yet clear what role they carry out, but it appears there is something in her genes that protects against dementia and other diseases of later life.”
Van Andel-Schipper, who was a premature child and was not expected to survive, originally offered to donate her body to the University of Groningen for study at the age of 82, then called the institute again at age 111 because she reportedly feared she would no longer be of interest to scientists.
“Dr. Holstege senior tested her mental abilities at the age of 112 and 113 and although she had problems with her eyesight, she was alert and performed better than the average 60 to 75-year-old,” Miller said of the woman who eventually succumbed to gastric cancer.
LiveScience columnist Christopher Wanjek further notes that Van Andel-Schipper did not enter a retirement home until the age of 105, and is one of less than 30 people to have made it past the age of 115 in modern times.
“Holstege and her Dutch and American colleagues are only in the initial stages of van Andel-Schipper’s genome analysis, and no results have been published,” Wanjek added. “Doctors hope that a better understanding of longevity genes can lead to medicines that can suppress the genes that cause disease and activate the genes that promote long life.”
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