The Extraordinary DNA of a 115-year Old Woman

Don’t we all wish to live long and healthily without any diseases such as dementia, diabetes or a weak heart? Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, a Dutch woman who passed away in 2005 at the age of 115, lived through three centuries without any health problems and was told to be “as fit as a 60-year old woman” during her last years of her life.

Her memory was remarkable and she could remember clearly the day in 1898 when Wilhelmina became Queen of the Netherlands. She also followed September 11 in 2001 in great detail on television.

But what enabled Hendrikje to live such a long live without any of the health problems that affect most of us much lower ages? What was her secret? Did she have a remarkable life without any stress and hardship or did she carry some remarkable DNA inside her?

When she was asked during her last two years of her life what made her so extraordinarily fit at her old age, she replied: “I eat a herring every day, drink a glass of orange juice and try to limit my alcohol intake to a glass at the weekend”. But could that be the reason for her incredible physical fitness and mental sharpness up to such an old age?

Scientists now believe that the DNA of this woman may hold the key to longevity. Her case is extremely interesting because she had hardly any health problems until her death. She did not even have artery calcification, from which most people suffer at an age above 70. Since 2003 several hundred human genomes have been sequenced and now scientists hope that the DNA of the old lady may reveal the secrets of her longevity.

However, when she was born, her life did not look that promising at all. She was born with a weight of only 1.6 kg, an almost definite death sentence at the end of the 19th century. However, her grandmother nourished her and Hendrikje witnessed three different centuries.

At the age of 82 she agreed that her body may be used for scientific purposes once she is dead. It was even more surprising that her autopsy revealed that her cause of death was an unidentified stomach cancer. Had she been operated early enough, she might have lived on for another few years, so the doctors reported.

But what is the cause of dementia in so many old people?

In Britain currently about 1 million people suffer from dementia and more than sixty percent of them have the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease. Hendrikje however did not show any signs of dementia and was mentally fitter than many of her friends who were half her age.

It is still unclear what exactly are the factors that define our age. We have some clues from genetic studies about the shortening of chromosomes but the issue is too complex and too many factors determine our age.

Maybe the scientists will find something remarkable in Hendrikje’s genome that will help us understand ageing and maybe even help some of us suffering from dementia or other diseases of high age?



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About Sebastian Müller

Sebastian Müller was born and raised in Leipzig/Germany and moved to England as an adolescent. He is a trained research chemist and geneticist and is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institut Curie in Paris/ France working in cancer research. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is still actively involved at the university today. He is fluent in English, German and French and has many fortés and interests including science, philosophy, linguistics, history, competitive sports such as rowing, fitness and nutrition. He is a freelance writer also drawing from his experience as an author in peer-reviewed scientific journals. "I love writing and putting my thoughts down on paper. The written word to me is one of the most powerful ways of conveying thoughts and initiating discussions."
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