115-year-old called mentally sharp at end
AMSTERDAM - 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 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.
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 with those who reach 100 years.
"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. . . . For a scientist, getting the opportunity to study someone like that is like winning the lottery," Doraiswamy said.
Doraiswamy, an Alzheimer's researcher, said that the proportion of brains with some buildup of proteins associated with the disease increases with age. As a result, scientists theorize anybody who lives long enough will get them eventually.
Holstege said Van Andel died of cancer. 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 age 100.