Cardiovascular health is studied in space

(NC)—In the early days of spaceflight, astronaut missions lasted only a few hours. Today, space farers routinely spend months on board the International Space Station (ISS). In 2009, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk spent 186 days on the orbiting laboratory, setting a new record for Canadians in space.

Decades of research on how the human body adapts to space has shown, though, that spaceflight takes a toll on the health of astronauts. Calcium is stripped from their bones, their muscles atrophy and their sense of “up” and “down” is affected (at least temporarily). Studies have also shown that the aging process is accelerated during long stays in space. A recent study found that astronauts returning from the ISS have stiffer blood vessels, a change similar to normal aging on Earth. Do blood vessels age faster in space?

A new Canadian study called VASCULAR aims to study the effects of microgravity on the cardiovascular system. Dr. Richard Hughson of the University of Waterloo leads the science team, which is funded by the Canadian Space Agency and supported by NASA.

Recent advances in medicine have linked certain blood proteins and hormones to cardiovascular stress and disease. Levels of these markers are used by doctors as early indicators of cardiovascular health. Astronauts will undergo blood tests before, during and after their spaceflights to look for these proteins and hormones, and particularly for any changes in their levels when they return from space. The astronauts will also have ultrasounds done that measure the elasticity of their arteries and veins before and after their flight.

Dr Hughson believes that space can be used to test potential solutions for combating this disabling disease, not only for space travelers but everyday Canadians. “We are hoping from these astronauts to not only get a better understanding of these mechanisms that might cause changes in their bodies, but also have a much better focus on what we can do to prevent similar cardiovascular aging in the general population here on Earth,” says Dr Hughson. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, there are approximately 70 000 heart attacks per year in Canada. VASCULAR could provide new information concerning factors that might contribute to cardiovascular disease.