What can astronauts teach us about aging?

Commander Chris Hadfield runs the Blood Pressure Regulation (BPReg) experiment on-board the ISS (Photo: NASA)

Commander Chris Hadfield runs the Blood Pressure Regulation (BPReg) experiment on-board the ISS (Photo: NASA)

Life in space can reveal a lot about life on Earth, says Nicole Buckley, Chief Scientist for the International Space Station and Life Sciences with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Buckley supervises an assortment of experiments that look at how the body responds to wear and tear in space, in order to understand how to keep astronauts and the rest of us healthy.

“What we see in space is in some ways like an accelerated parallel of aging,” she says at TEDxWinnipeg, a phenomenon that allows scientists to investigate how our bodies age and how to ameliorate the consequences of the process.

In just six months, a female astronaut can lose as much bone density as her peers on Earth would lose in two years, Buckley says, and male astronauts are likely to lose bone mass at a rate of about ten times that of osteoporosis.

“When we think of [something like] bone loss in the elderly, it tends to be a sort of general phenomena that their bones tend to weaken with age. But when you look at it in space and in a free fall environment, it’s [only] the bones you don’t use,” Buckley says at TEDxWinnipeg.

This allows scientists to investigate loss of bone density in specific places, and as a whole — through experiments that are “highly relevant to bone loss on Earth as a result of aging or extended periods of inactivity, for instance, people who have suffered spinal cord injuries or who are bedridden,” writes the CSA.

The eOSTEO experiment studies how astronauts' bone mass changes in space. Above, an example of microgravity-induced bone changes.

The eOSTEO experiment studies how astronauts’ bone mass changes in space. Above, an example of microgravity-induced bone changes.

One of these experiments supervised by Buckley and the CSA is OSTEO, which was conducted by astronaut John Glenn, and found that “isolated bone cells in space take longer to regenerate than on Earth.”

Buckley also works on experiments that look at why astronauts develop stiff arteries, drops in blood pressure, and more.

Watch her entire talk to learn more:

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