Alzheimer's not inevitable for elderly
An unidentified 115-year-old woman who remained mentally alert throughout her life is being held up as proof that the elderly need not succumb to a degenerative brain condition known as Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers who interacted with the Dutch woman before her death found her to be “an alert and assertive lady, full of interest in the world around her, including national and international politics and sports”.
She had lived independently until moving to an old age home at age 105, mainly because of poor eyesight. Just before her death at 115, she was described as the world's oldest woman.
Ironically, she had been very small at birth and was not expected to survive.
When she was 82, the woman had made arrangements to donate her body to science after death. At age 111, she contacted the researchers to ask whether her body would still be useful for study or teaching purposes.
The researchers assured her that, contrary to what she thought, they were especially interested because of her age.
“She was very enthusiastic about her being important for science,” recalled Gert Holstege of the University Medical Centre in Groningen, The Netherlands, who led the team of researchers.
A series of neurological and psychological examinations were performed when she was 112 and 113 years old. The results were essentially normal, with no signs of dementia or problems with memory or attention. In general, her mental performance was above average for adults aged 60 to 75.
“Our observations suggest . . . the limits of human cognitive function may extend far beyond the range that is currently enjoyed by most individuals,” said Holstege.
Holstege and colleagues had an unusual chance to test the mental functioning of the world's oldest woman and then to compare their findings with the condition of the subject's brain after death.
As planned, her body was donated to science when she died and an examination found almost no evidence of atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) anywhere in her body.
The brain also showed very few abnormalities - the number of brain cells was similar to that expected in healthy people between 60 and 80 years old.
A key finding was the absence of brain abnormalities typical of Alzheimer's disease. There were almost no deposits of a substance called beta-amyloid, characteristic of Alzheimer's patients.
The unique case lends new insights into the potential for preserving brain function in very elderly patients.
The findings of the study are slated to appear in the forthcoming issue of the journal Neurobiology of Aging.
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