June 13, 2008 -- A Dutch woman who was the oldest person in the world when she died at age 115 in 2005 appeared sharp right up to the end, joking that pickled herring was the secret to her longevity.
Scientists say that Henrikje van Andel-Schipper's mind was probably as good as it seemed: a post-mortem analysis of her brain revealed few signs of Alzheimer's or other diseases commonly associated with a decline in mental ability in old age.
That came as something of a surprise, said Gert Holstege, a professor at Groningen University, whose findings will be published in the August edition of Neurobiology of Aging.
"Everybody was thinking that when you have a brain over 100 years, you have a lot of problems," he said in a telephone interview on Friday.
He cited a common hardening of arteries and the build up of proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease as examples.
"This is the first (extremely old) brain that did not have these problems."
Van Andel was the oldest living person in the world at the time of her death in 2005 in the Dutch city of Hoogeveen, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
In 1972, the then 82-year-old Van Andel called the University of Groningen in order to donate her body to science. She called again at age 111 because she worried she might no longer be of interest. At that time Holstege began to interview her, testing her cognitive abilities at ages 112 and 113. Though she had problems with her eyesight, she was alert and performing better than the average 60- to 75-year-old.
Dr. Murali Doraiswamy of the Center for Aging at Duke University, not associated with the study, said it is unusual and valuable.
In the first place there are few "super-centenarians" -- people 110 and older -- alive at any one time, a slim proportion of the world's population and a scant number even compared to those who reach 100 years.
As a result, he said, there are few chances to study brains as old as hers.
"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," said Doraiswamy.
"For a scientist, getting the opportunity to study someone like that is like winning the lottery."
Doraiswamy, an Alzheimer's expert, said that the proportion of brains with some buildup of proteins associated with the disease increases with age. As a result, experts theorize anybody who lives long enough will get them eventually.
When Van Andel died, the director of the elderly home where she was living declined to give a cause of death, pointing to her extremely advanced years.
Holstege said she died of cancer.
"She died from stomach cancer, and you and I can also die from stomach cancer," he said, adding that her case demonstrates that very old people die of diseases, not simply old age.
"It is very important to treat the elderly as normal people, as if they are 50 or 60."
He noted that Van Andel was operated on at age 100 for breast cancer and survived 15 more years.
When she was born in 1890, she weighed only 3.5 pounds, and her mother expected her to die in infancy. Van Andel's husband died in 1959. She had no children.
Longevity was in her genes, as all her siblings lived past 70, and her mother died at the age of 100.
Asked what advice she would give to people who want to live a long time, she once quipped: "Keep breathing."
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