Out of this World: What is the Long-term Heart Health of NASA Astronauts?

August 9, 2022
published in:
Mayo Clinic Proceedings
Beth B. Wright, PhD
, et al.

Interested in space travel?

Thinking about the red planet as your destination? At a minimum, a round trip to Mars is approximately 34 million miles with a flight time measured in years! Such a distant destination will require a lot of planning and preparation. Not least of which, it is important to ensure that your underlying health is good enough to make any space trip as there are no emergency rooms or hospitals in space.

Known health concerns of space travel include changes in exercise routines, a change in diet, impaired sleep, psychological stress, and exposure to some radiation. During and after spaceflight, astronauts sometimes experience changes in their blood lipid profiles, insulin resistance, and increased levels of inflammation. Physical changes include loss of bone density and muscle bulk depending on their time in space.  However, it is unclear whether some of these concerns are long-lasting.

With this in mind, NASA collaborated with The Cooper Institute (CI) investigators to examine possible long-term effects of space travel. A group of 303 astronauts with space mission experience since 1970 was compared to a group of 1,514 Cooper Center Longitudinal Study (CCLS) participants of similar age, sex, and health status. Importantly, because astronauts must be physically fit to carry out their missions, CCLS participants were chosen for this study based on their fitness level. Fitness is a powerful predictor of health, chronic disease and mortality.

Results published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings on July 1, 2022, showed that both groups experienced below-average rates of heart disease death during an average 30 years of follow-up. No difference was found in future risk of heart disease-related death in astronauts compared to CCLS participants. However, evidence of a slight increased risk of non-fatal heart attacks and strokes was seen in the astronauts studied. For those considering a trip to space, the study supports the need for heart-healthy living and preventive healthcare.

As Neil Armstrong said during the first moonwalk, ‘That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ This study’s findings make a small, but significant contribution to the protection of space explorers.

Charvat Mayo Clin Proc. 2022;97(7): 1237-1246
Josephson Mayo Clin Proc. 2022;97(7): 1222-1223

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