Her blood tells a story.
And it's a very, very long story.
Born in 1890, Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper once had the honour of being the world's oldest woman. Today — years after her death — her blood is under the microscope.
And it's telling us a lot about the limits of our own mortality.
In a study published this week in the journal Genome Research, Dutch scientists conducted a deep analysis of van Andel-Schipper's blood and tissues, finding that human life does indeed have an expiry date. It's set by our cells' ability to divide.
And it's limited.
Once a stem cell has reached that cap — literally dividing itself to death — it can no longer replenish tissues.
According to New Scientist, van Andel-Schipper was down to just two stem cells at the time of her demise — fueling two-thirds of her white blood cells. Virtually every stem cell she began her long life with had burned out.
"Is there a limit to the number of stem cell divisions, and does that imply that there's a limit to human life?" research head Henne Holstege of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam told New Scientist. "Or can you get round that by replenishment with cells saved from earlier in your life?"
Van Andel-Schipper's case is especially unique in that she was reportedly in pristine shape until very close to her death in 2005. According to New Scientist, she enjoyed 'crystal clear cognition' and a blood circulatory system free of disease.
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When Walter Bruening died in April, 2011, he was 114 years, 205 days old. He smoked cigars until he was 99.
Besse Cooper actually received the Guinness World Record for Oldest Living Person twice. Not long after she was awarded it the first time, Maria Gomes Valentim of Brazil was discovered to be slightly older than Besse. Valentum held the title for about a month, and then Besse reigned again fora year as the oldest person until she died last December at the age of 116 years, 100 days.
Juana Bautista de la Candelaria Rodriquez of Cuba claims to be 126 years old, but age experts believe her age is closer to 96.
Mary Tankursley became a member of the 110 club briefly before passing away. Experts say that when a person hits that age, their life expectency is about 50 percent.
Ruth Anderson was 112 years old when she died in December, 2011. She outlived her twin sister by 111 years earning a place in Guinness World Records for Oldest Singleton Twin.
Sister Cecilia Gaudette is an American-born nun living in Rome, Italy, who is 111 years old and counting. In 2008, she set a record for Oldest Absentee Voter when she cast a ballot for Barack Obama.
As noted in Discover, humans begin life with as many as 20,000 hematopoietic stem cells. These cells, so-named because they fuel the body with fresh blood cells — basically renewing themselves very 25 to 50 weeks.
The fact that van Andel-Schipper had whittled down her stem cells to just a pair over her long life suggests that mortality is capped. But it also suggests scientists might find ways to remove that cap.
Lead study author Henne Holstege is zeroing in on those stem cells, telling Discovery, that old bodies might be rejuvenated by injecting them with operational stem cells from other bodies.
“We need to analyse the genomes of more individuals just as special as Mrs. van Andel-Schipper: cognitively healthy and extremely old," Holstege told Time.