We might never figure out how to cheat death, but scientists are starting to understand what makes supercentenarians—people significantly older than 100—special. A new study published in Genome Research analyzed the blood cells of a healthy 115-year-old woman, who was the world's oldest person when she died in 2005 and is believed to be the oldest person ever to have donated her body to science.
Researchers detected more than 400 genetic somatic mutations in the woman's white blood cells. A little bit of science is required to explain why finding these types of mutations in a supercentenarian is special.
The authors of the study explain that mutations are classified as somatic if they're acquired during an organism's development or later in life, rather than from an external cell. These mutations typically occur in cells that divide frequently, an inherently error-prone process, which means that they can drastically compromise or aid growth.
Because somatic mutations have been linked to how cells divide, scientists often study them to learn more about cancer and other diseases involving unchecked cell division and tissue growth. That's why finding these mutations in a healthy elderly person represents a breakthrough; while some somatic mutations are negative, this woman's blood suggests they might also hold the key to longer life spans.
The scientists also found that the woman's telomeres—the ends of chromosomes that protect them from damage and get shorter each time a cell divides—were extremely short. Although getting to the bottom of this mystery will require further research, the study predicts that supercentenarian death may be tied to "stem cell exhaustion," where telomeres simply get so short that they impede cell division. In turn, this could lead to gene therapy to extend telomere—and human—longevity.
Although the study did not disclose the woman's name, she ranks among the 25 verified oldest people to have lived. But Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the ripe age of 122, puts the study's specimen to shame.
According to data compiled by the Gerontology Research Group, as of 2013, there were 58 living people 110 years or older in the world, with Japan's 116-year-old Misao Okawa holding the coveted slot of "world's oldest person."