115-Year-Old Woman’s Blood Reveals Limits on Longevity

By Carl Engelking | April 24, 2014 2:30 pm


Discovering the secret to a long and healthy life has always intrigued humanity — you need look no further than the nearest magazine rack to see that that fascination is today alive and well. And now scientists have some new hints, thanks to blood samples from one of the longest-lived humans yet to walk this Earth: Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, who was 115 when she died in 2005. A new genetic analysis of blood and tissue samples collected during her autopsy indicates that life’s outer limits might be set by our cells’ finite ability to divide.

Tired Stem Cells

We are born with up to 20,000 hematopoietic stem cells — cells that give rise to new blood cells — that self-renew in our body every 25 to 50 weeks by dividing creating two daughter cells. These cells differentiate to generate the various types of blood cells in our bodies. About 1,300 of those hematopoietic stem cells are dedicated to creating new white blood cells in our bone marrow. By contrast scientists found that Andel-Schipper’s blood, at the time of her death, was being derived from only two active stem cells — suggesting the rest wore out and died.

In addition, the telomeres on her white blood cells’ chromosomes were extremely short, 17 times shorter than the telomeres in her brain’s cells (which rarely divide after birth). This was further evidence that Andel-Schipper’s blood stem cells had suffered the ravages of aging. The number of times our stem cells can divide may be the reason our lives are finite, the study suggests. The results were published Wednesday in the journal Genome Research.

The Fountain of Youth

As with any study of aging, the question of how these findings might be tapped to help the rest of us live longer and healthier is a central one. And study author Henne Holstege thinks stem cells could be key. She told New Scientist that the results raise the possibility of rejuvenating aging bodies by injecting people with stem cells saved from early in their lives.

Further research is needed to determine whether stem cell exhaustion itself causes mortality or whether it’s a side effect of the aging process. But with more and more supercentenarians like Andel-Schipper, they should have a growing group of study subjects in the years ahead.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: aging, genes & health
  • Persephone Abel

    My guess is the latter; it’s probably an effect of the aging process, not a cause.

  • det0918

    There are so many other variables that were not even considered – what about the predominate nutritional deficiency in this country -due to pesticides, air pollution, vaccines filled with neurotoxins, lower levels of oxygen, soil depletion – etc. your body/cells cannot work properly if starved of the “complete” nutrition and oxygen that it takes to keep it in balance! This appears to be more junk science -

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Eric Lipps

      Then why are there “more and more supercentenarians”?
      When I was in grade school, I attended for several years a Seventh-Day Adventist school whose teachers were constantly bombarding us kids with studies purporting to prove that the Adventists’ vegetarianism gave them superior health. Funny thing was (well, not so funny), that school turned out to be a “cancer cluster”; several of the children I knew were affected. There were also a lot of other health problems; some of the children, for example, were literally too thin to be vaccinated, while others were grossly fat.
      When it comes to nutrition, there’s an incredible amount of quackery around. Your best bet is your simplest: moderation.

      • Odin Matanguihan

        I too find it unusual that a certain SDA pastor kept telling me about healthy food choices when it is painfully obvious that I am a lot healthier than virtually anyone in his flock.

        • JohnFMayer

          And I am healthier than most meat-eaters I know. Both statements, of course, mean very little.

          • Jamie Gilbert

            Good for you

          • JohnFMayer

            My point exactly.

      • http://www.gohealthy4life.com/ Doug

        That’s true. And there are more obese people then ever before and the rate of cancer is higher now than it was 50 years ago. Given a larger population there are bound to be more living longer, however, I bet it’s still the same percentile.
        Lots of quackery, but also lots of good science. Knowing the source is very important to cutting through the crap. There are a few facts; artificial sweateners are not good for us, our foods are not as nutritious as they were 20-30 years ago, environmental toxins can not be avoided, evidence is mounting that GMO is not good and you can not trust the food industry or government in protecting our health interests. Eating junk, even in moderation, over a life time will take its toll. Informed moderation is best.

    • UnexpectedTiger

      Pesticides – Probably not important, for human rather than environmental health. Except for farm workers most people’s exposure to pesticides is pretty minimal – there’s not much left on many foods.
      Air pollution – This is bad for you. It’s got a lot better in the West over the last few decades though.
      Vaccines filled with neurotoxins – Nonsense. They’re not. Dangerous nonsense that’s been debunked many, many times.
      Lower levels of oxygen – What? The atmosphere still has 21% oxygen. People who really do live at high altitude where there’s less oxygen are in some ways healthier (they win marathons anyway).

      • http://www.gohealthy4life.com/ Doug

        Studies have shown that there are an average of 167 toxic chemicals floating around in our blood stream. Their impact on human health has never been tested so what would you suggest is a safe level of exposure? The lack of trace minerals in our foods from farming practices and soil depletion has been linked to disease. It’s easy to stick your head in the sand and believe that environment toxins are not impacting our health, but the latest studies are showing otherwise.

        • UnexpectedTiger

          I’m not sure what study you mean or how it defines ‘toxic’ (anything including water is toxic if you have enough of it). Or whether they were only counting artificial toxins, because there are plenty of natural toxins too. There are also some that modern lifestyles reduce exposure to, such as those related to smoke inhalation from open fires.

          I’m sure there are some chemicals we’re exposed to that are particularly bad for us and those should be identified. However, overall I’m not aware of any major health problems that economic development seems to make worse except those connected to fat/sugar/alcohol/inactivity etc. and simply to age (since we do live longer).

          Lack of trace minerals in foods may be linked to disease. So is starvation, which is what we’d have without modern farming methods.

          • http://www.gohealthy4life.com/ Doug

            Our bodies have evolved to handle most of the naturally occurring toxins in small concentrations. However, the impact of the 10,000 plus artificial chemicals on our health is mostly unknown. Some of the bad ones are known and still in use due to political pressure from the industries producing them. Some diseases, such as MS, autism, dimentia are more prevalent in people from specific areas. Communities near refineries have a disproportionate number of female births. Children who were prenatally exposed to toxins lag behind developmentally. Bisphenol A (BPA) was not removed from plastic water bottles until a few years ago. Flame retardants used in baby’s car seats cause cancerous tumors. Dioxins were at one time considered safe. Just because you haven’t heard about the health issues doesn’t mean there arn’t any.

    • Skarn22

      The article never claimed to have found a single overarching cause though.
      Also, as far as I know none of the things you listed have even been linked to aging, so… what?

  • John Majkrzak

    Fascinating, you know this means Zombies were the first to make the brain stem cell link.

  • Mary Ciulla

    An autopsy was done on a 115 year old woman? Did she have an arrangement with someone to do this?

    • Leonid Proxy

      What does that have to do with anything?

      • Jamie Gilbert

        Some people view that as disrespectful, sad you can’t understand it was simply a question.

    • Odin Matanguihan

      A similar article elsewhere mentioned that she donated her body. I guess that means a yes to your question.

      But I’m not sure if explicit permission is really necessary for autopsies as these things are kinda routine. It would make sense for me if it is allowed by default unless the person has expressed objection to it, or if her religious background suggests that she would have objected to it.

  • u14011052

    u14011052 This article provides insight on how medical technology may be used in the future to extend human life, but who are the people that will end up benefiting from these treatments? Surely only those who can afford it. Theoretically, even if the majority of the world’s population’s lives are going to be extended to unnatural lengths, this will have an adverse effect on the environment because of overpopulation. The Earth’s natural resources will be depleted at a much faster rate. A lot of money is being used to theorise on how human life can be extended, but can this money not be put to better use if it is used to extend the lives of babies who may die at infancy due to starvation?

    • Leonid Proxy

      Space Travel and Space Exploration will solve the majority of the problems states in your post :). This is exactly why Humanity needs to stop turning a blind eye to it and start exploiting it as a species and not as separate organizations.

      • RoyShastid

        While I agree with the pressing !!!!! need to step up our game in space exploration. It will not fix overpopulation problems. If every commercial airplane was miraculously converted into a space ship capable of carrying full loads of people to Mars everyday we would not make a dent in the population growth.

        • Cory Loomis

          Yay people on my level!!!

          • Lando Goshen

            Yay people on Cory’s level!

        • Cory Loomis

          If you want to explore outside of our solar system you will have to live for much longer other wise you won’t make the trip. Think navy vessels vs. Commercial airplanes crossing the galaxy. You have to leave the solar system. When our sun goes super nova that’s all she wrote

          • New Heights

            the sun won’t go supernova and Mars is within our solar system…

          • Cory Loomis

            Yes I know Mars is within our Solar system that’s why I said you have to leave it. I misspoke, the sun will go nova/red giant eventually. It’s fate.

          • New Heights

            it won’t though.

      • J. Fischer

        Merely leaving the planet won’t solve overpopulation. How many people died in the tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima reactor? Before the day was out, that number had been more than replaced. We’d have to transport billions of people to reduce the planet’s population.

        • Lando Goshen

          Merely leaving the planet will solve overpopulation. There are more raw materials and drinking water in the asteroids than on Earth. Ground-to-orbit expenditures will continue to drop. Billions will live in close orbit colonies. Not to mention far orbit destinations.
          We are but a foot forward, not a journey completed.

        • Fear Lancer

          Actually it will encourage the population to leave the planet. Yes there will be a significant amount of people still on the planet, but once people begin to see that Space colonization is something that can happen easily and safely with the chance of coming back if something to go wrong, unlike the way we are planning on going to Mars today, then it will encourage people to start venturing out. Think of it like how a bird treats its babies when its time to fly. It just kinda pushes the baby out of the nest and it will learn how to fly, if it doesnt…..well lol lets just hope we dont die.

    • AtomR

      In my humble opinion there should be laws in place to limit reproduction by people that have extended lives with whatever treatment will be available in the future. In the extreme if immortality is ever achieved (very unlickelly extreme) then neutering of immortals shoukd mandatory due to the overpopulation problem.

      • Kurt

        Rather I’d limit the reproduction of those with short lives. No more having 5-12 kids then dieing by 50 before the last ones are even grown. It’s incredibly selfish.

        • AtomR

          It’s selfish to die young? Anyways what I was getting at is if you’re gonna take longer to die and be healthy longer then you are going to reproduce more so that would have a negative effect on the already overpopulated planet we live in.

      • Andrea Campbell

        There are millions of potential worlds out there that could be habitat for a larger population. What we need to do is plan for the larger population growth, and not throw away people with experience just because they are older. It is sad that doctors look at the drivers license to see your age before deciding to treat you with the best possible treatment, while reserving the best treatments for people who are younger and have not proven their worth in life.

        • AtomR

          Who’s suggesting throwing people away?

    • J. Fischer

      You presume that we’ll continue reproducing at the same rate as now.

      Increasing the standard of living for all would reduce the birth rate. If a longer life expectancy could translate to healthy childbearing in later years, that same longer life would ease the subconscious pressure to ‘leave a legacy’ in the form of offspring, so again, fewer children born. Quality over quantity.

  • Jamie Gilbert

    Science will never stop trying, but your theories have a direct effect on everyone. Extending the lives of humans without equal balance with the atmosphere,land,water, wildlife, vegetation or etc. will ultimately lead us to our own self created demise. Let me sound as corny as you view it, but it is this simple…..our world is self destructing because of our selfish, let’s make it easier on us, how great am I attitudes. All we need is the simplicity of it all. Trust in God, do his will-preach his goodness and love….work your soil, teach your children, work with others and put yourself in their shoes that moment you want to explode. Work together for a better tomorrow. I say forget this bs, I’m going to heaven when I’m done here & let the bs fall right off my shoulder, BUT I want more! More New friends that feel like you’ve known them forever, more voices in our heavenly choir and less tears in my father’s eyes when he sees all the lost he created turn their faces from him for “this world.” She lived this long because that was her journey, just like we’re here because God made Adam and Eve….Good luck figuring out my God’s science of it all and good luck to all who try to steer the world to believe your way is right not His!

    • Jamie Gilbert

      That’s what I figured…..

  • Getanda Ondieki Getanda

    wow! maybe come up with longevity studies to research on this

  • Mary Ciulla

    Unless this woman’s body was donated, why would an autopsy be done on a 115 year old person. It would be a waste of money unless the body was there for research purposes. Just wondering why.

    • rsanchez1

      It was donated.

  • Rainer Götz

    Interesting idea, indeed, the question is: Will the ‘old’/grown-up body accept the fresh/’baby’ blood?

    Inasmuch the stem cell dividing process or to be precise the number how often a cell can divide, like written above, is crucial, maybe the analysis of the procedure by itself, would reveal some possibilities of manipulating. I wonder if it is possible to just slow down the process…

  • John F Remillard

    Simple arithmetic tells us that for our species to survive and thrive we must dedicate ourselves to develop whatever it takes to propagate the planets, moons, asteroids, and man-made space-stations, etc.

    • Emkay

      1. breed specimens of (a plant, animal, etc.) by natural processes from the parent stock.
      “try propagating your own houseplants from cuttings”
      synonyms: breed, grow, cultivate More
      (of a plant, animal, etc.) reproduce by natural processes.
      “the plant propagates freely from stem cuttings”
      synonyms: reproduce, multiply, proliferate, increase, spread, self-seed, self-sow More
      2. spread and promote (an idea, theory, etc.) widely.
      “the French propagated the idea that the English were violent and gluttonous drunkards”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Glenn Jones

    Does this research have any implications for those who are regular blood donors? Could they be giving away their prospects for a longer life?

    • Emkay

      Of course they are!… our primal ancestors NEVER gave blood and certainly the thousands that died from ‘bloodletting in the Dark Ages did not volunteer to ‘bleed..The concept of allowing 15 to 20 percent of your blood to be taken away is not only foolish, it is dangerous to your health…

      My grandfather was required by his employer to be part of the blood donor team, which gave blood every 6 months. After several years of this activity, the bodies signals to start-stop reproducing the lost cells (after donation) failed to stop production of his white cells?…the resulting ‘leukemia killed him in three months… Knowing this, I would only give my blood to a close family relative.

    • facefault

      There’s no evidence that more frequent blood donation shortens telomeres, but it’s possible.

      Emkay’s response is a bit off. The evidence of a link between blood donation and leukemia is weak. The risks of giving blood are very low relative to the number of lives blood donation saves.

  • Bill

    We knew about telemeres and their role in cell death decades ago, how is this new?

  • mbpradas

    Medicine manufacturers are looking for new ideas to sell and gain more money. Thanks to Researchers to keep the Corporate happy.

  • amandaeallen

    We must find ways to extend life…. To make travel to other planets possible, I think within 200 years, we will have humans living to 200 years of age….

    • Jason Hinchliffe

      Well you know 160 is the new 120.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Paul Goedicke

    There are many benefits of living longer – over population seems to be self correcting – look at the US, Japan, and Europe reproduction rates. 3rd world countries birth rates should also drop as the women become more in control of their reproduction choices.
    It has always been true that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you will maintain good health (baring bad genes or an accident.) Think what 200 or 300 years of experience would do for the ability to judge what works and what is just a passing fancy.
    Further space travel becomes much more practical if you have a multi-hundred year life expectancy. If it took 80 years to get to the nearest star system and you had a multi-hundred year life expectancy that would be much like the early explores who’s journeys took years to complete.
    Science will march on – both to the benefit and detriment of society. Those who have won the IQ gene lottery are always going to be ahead of those who did not or are just lazy.
    Starvation is a sign mostly of too high of a reproduction rate in today’s world (or war imposed upon them from the outside.) Neither problem will be solved my more money; but can be solved by better education.

  • Ceron Christie

    Wonder if ethnicity changes findings

  • Rico Rey Bulan Jr.

    Now that we have a proximate idea of what causes longevity, I pose this question: which type of cells die first at the moment of natural death? Brain cells? Blood cells? Lung cells? Answering this question, I believe, might help us solve the mystery of death.

    My hypothesis is that when a vital organ shuts down, the rest will automatically follow. The first organ to die will stop functioning which would lead to complications or render other dependent organs incapable of further functioning themselves. This shutting down would continue very much like the domino effect and would be the actual cause of death.


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