Scientists have long searched for the secrets to longevity – and now, clues to this medical “holy grail” may be revealed in the blood of one of the world’s oldest and healthiest women.
Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was born in 1890 and lived to be an astonishing 115 years old. But even more notable was her health; she was free of disease and in outstanding cognitive shape by the time of her death in 2005. With the support of her living relatives, van Andel-Schipper agreed to have her body donated to science after she died.
Now, in a new study published in the journal Genome Research, scientists have analyzed the centenarian’s blood and other tissues to better understand how they change with age.
According to a report in New Scientist, the researchers found that in the years before her death, most of van Andel-Schipper’s white blood cells originated from just two stem cells, indicating that most of the blood stem cells she had been born with had been used up or died. Additionally, her white blood cells had incredibly short telomeres – the protective caps on chromosomes that wear down over time.
These findings help to support the theory of stem cell exhaustion, which suggests that an individual’s lifespan may be limited by his or her cells’ ability to divide. And ultimately, cell division cannot last forever.
"It's estimated that we're born with around 20,000 blood stem cells, and at any one time, around 1,000 are simultaneously active to replenish blood," said lead researcher Henne Holstege of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. But over time, these cells’ telomeres shrink and they lose the ability to divide – leading to stem cell death and depletion.
However, Holstege noted that the results raise the possibility of injecting aging bodies with youthful stem cells saved from the early years of life.
"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," she said.