One of the world’s oldest women may hold the key to the fountain of youth. Scientists from the Netherlands are studying a 115 year olds’ blood. Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper – who was once recognized as the world’s oldest human at the time of her death – may have had a long, healthy lifespan thanks to something small and unexpected: stem cells! Researchers have discovered that a longer life may be linked to the ability of the body’s blood and immune system stem cells to replenish themselves. Andel-Schipper’s age might be connected to her stem cell’s superior ability to repair or eliminate cells with dangerous characteristics, helping fight off disease and infections common in old age.
Stem cells play a vital role in regenerating the body’s fundamental tissues and cells that keep us alive. We are only born with an estimated 20,000 of the blood stem cells. Once they begin to expire, so does the body’s ability to keep self-revitalizing.
When she died, Andel-Schipper, who agreed to donate her body to science, showed no signs of dementia, had a circulatory system free of disease, and all of the cells in her immune system were derived from only two stem cells. These two cells were responsible for two-thirds of the white blood cells (cells of the immune system) left in her body, indicating that most of her other blood and immune stem cells were spent. The white blood cells that she did have had very worn-down telomeres – the protective tips found on the ends of chromosomes that get shorter each time a cell divides to create new cells. Once they get too short, the cell can no longer divide and they become inactive. Telomere shortening is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death, which is why Telomere’s are sometimes compared to a “bomb fuse”. Remarkably, even though Andel-Schipper’s supercentinarian stem cells were worn and tired, they were still able to repair her system from harmful mutations for years longer than most people’s.
How do the rest of us stop this “ticking time bomb” of aging? Scientists propose that we may be able to keep it at bay by replenishing the body’s blood and immune stem cell stock using younger, healthier cells saved from birth or early life, which would also have the longer telomere “fuses.”
So along with Andel-Schipper’s advice for a long life – which included eating herring and drinking orange juice everyday – perhaps saving up some of our body’s blood stem cells might one-day make reaching the age of 115 pretty ordinary. Research is ongoing, but that’s pretty exciting!
Holstege H. et al., Somatic mutations found in the healthy blood compartment of a 115-yr-old woman demonstrate oligoclonal hematopoiesis. Genome Res. 2014. 24: 733-742