Health research hits the stratosphere

Helping Canadians to age better with health data from space

November 23, 2015

Space travel has fascinated us for centuries. We marveled as early space explorers blasted off into the great unknown, defying the forces of gravity. Life as an astronaut has captured the imagination of generations. Since those early images were beamed back to Earth in the 1960s, featuring space travelers floating effortlessly around the capsule, or bouncing easily over the surface of the Moon, many have longed to experience weightlessness. But what we are only beginning to understand today is the negative effect of weightlessness on humans.

We don't need to turn to books or movies to see heroes working in space. Life on earth would probably not be the same without the help of astronauts risking their lives in space, but what does it do to their health?  Astronauts in space are living a very stationary life. What this means is that spending time in space accelerates the body's aging process. We can study the effect of aging in space because the process is much more apparent. But questions remain. How can these small steps for researchers become a giant leap for the rest of us?  How can research on accelerated aging in space make us healthier back home?

Every indication is that the value of an active lifestyle cannot be understated.

CIHR-funded researcher Dr. Richard Hughson from the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging is working closely with the Canadian Space Agency to find ways to age better on earth with the help of astronauts. His research is mostly geared towards the effect of space on vascular aging and blood pressure and stresses the fact that exercising on a daily basis is one of the best ways to live a healthy life.

Dr. Richard Hughson
Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging
Reproduced with permission of the University of Waterloo.

Audio – Interview with Dr. Richard Hughson


This is David Coulombe for CIHR's Health Research in Action news. There's a lot of excitement around the possibility of people going to Mars one day. The problem is that space flight takes a toll on the human body by accelerating aging, leading to health complications. For example, it involves being stationary for an extensive period of time. When we  live a sedentary lifestyle on Earth, it advances the progression of cardiovascular disease. So could we say that living in space is like an accelerated form of aging? Could space travel provide us with new information on the aging process?

To help us understand how living in space can inform our lives on earth, our guest today is Dr. Richard Hughson, a CIHR-funded researcher.

Mr. David Coulombe: Dr. Hughson, welcome.

Dr. Richard Hughson: Thank you very much, David.

Mr. David Coulombe: So you are working closely with the Canadian Space Agency. So can we say that astronauts are the most sedentary working population that you can find?

Dr. Richard Hughson: That is actually quite true. The astronauts, we've all seen pictures of them, they just float around all day long in the space station. There's no work required really to move a heavy object or themselves. The only time that they get some physical exercise is when they voluntarily hop onto a cycle ergometer, or the treadmill, or use their resistive exercise device, or if they're doing what's referred to as an extravehicular activity. They have to do quite a bit of straining types of manoeuvers when they do that, but that's quite rare.

Mr. David Coulombe: So you did a lot of research. How did you proceed  to get those -- the results?

Dr. Richard Hughson: Well, our research with the Space Agency has spawned several projects that have looked at blood pressure regulation and are now really focusing on vascular aging which is a key part of my CIHR research as well. So regarding the vascular aging part of it, we're using a lot  of ultrasound investigations to look at how the arteries change their properties and how they become stiffer.

Mr. David Coulombe: You've worked with many astronauts, including Chris Hadfield. What have you found in terms of impact on their bodies after a long mission into space?

Dr. Richard Hughson: Well, there are a couple of things there. One is related to blood pressure regulation. Some, but not all, astronauts come back with quite a deficit in their ability to respond if they change posture. So when they stand upright they can get dizzy quite easily as a consequence of not getting enough oxygen up to the brain, enough brain blood flow.

But the other thing, as I mentioned a second ago, is that the arteries are coming back stiffer. We've looked at the carotid artery in particular because it changes a lot with space flight due to the physical inactivity and due to a change in pressure gradient. What we found is that we are seeing astronauts coming back from space with their carotid arteries that have aged the equivalent to 20 to 30 years in stiffness. It is very comparable to what you would see in an aging population. So we think the method or the mechanisms are quite different in some ways but there are some similarities too.

Mr. David Coulombe: So tell us how can these findings help people age in a healthier way?

Dr. Richard Hughson: Well, certainly physical activity is important. One of the things we've identified with the astronauts is that they're really doing only about 30 minutes per day of aerobic type of exercise and the rest of the day they're floating around. So clearly 30 minutes per day is not enough exercise. One of the other things we've just identified in our most recent study is a trend toward increased insulin resistance, which is exactly the same type of problem we see on earth if people are physically inactive.

Mr. David Coulombe: So your conclusion could be that the more you move the less you age?

Dr. Richard Hughson: Well, astronauts for sure definitely need to be moving more. And we know from, you know, many studies here on earth that physical activity is a good thing in many, many ways for your body, your cardiovascular system, your metabolic control system and muscles and bones and joints, so physical activity is definitely good for us.

Mr. David Coulombe: Dr. Hughson, thanks so much for your time.

Dr. Richard Hughson: Okay. You're quite welcome, David.

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