Aging Research should be Grounded – No

The “baby boomer” generation consists of approximately 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. As members of this generation start to reach/pass the age of retirement, the strain on federal assistance programs and health care systems will continue to grow. For instance, it is estimated that by the year 2030 the number of individuals age 65 and older will constitute 20 percent of the US population. By the year 2050, there will be an estimated 19.4 million Americans aged 85 and older. These startling numbers reveal that there will be a significantly greater number of older people at risk for disease and disability. As such, much scientific research is being focused on ways to maintain and/or improve the health and well-being of older Americans.

Research performed by NASA scientists has revealed that certain physiological changes consistent with aging occur in individuals following extended space travel. Both the elderly and astronauts experience symptoms such as reduced cardiovascular fitness, bone and muscle deterioration, slower recovery from injury, and depressed immune responses. Because of the observed parallels between aging and space travel, a number of scientists and public official believe that older adults should be sent into space as a means to gather scientific data on how space affects the biological process of aging.

While it is tempting to speculate that those physiological changes that occur in both populations result from the same processes, this notion must be met with some caution. First, the biological causes of, and processes related to, aging are likely to be quite complex and as such are currently not well understood. Thus, efforts to understand the effects of low gravity on several biological processes would be further complicated by the complexities and uncertainties related to aging. Second, those physiological symptoms experienced by astronauts upon their return to Earth are reversible over time. Unfortunately, these symptoms are typically not reversible in the elderly and can actually worsen over time. This would suggest that the biological processes responsible for the physiological changes observed in both populations are perhaps unrelated and/or more complex in the elderly. Lastly, it is questionable whether older adults are suitable candidates for space travel and experimentation. The training to become an astronaut is very physically demanding and rigorous. Despite an increased awareness of proper health and diet, would a normal “baby boomer” be able to meet the demands of such training? Consistent with this, would that individual capable of completing the training be a fair representation of the country’s “baby boomer” population?

A better approach to increase our understanding about the biology of aging would be to encourage older adults to enroll in traditional scientific studies. Many federally-funded institutions, as well as private companies, have initiated well-designed scientific studies intended on identifying ways to maintain and/or improve the health and well-being of older Americans. Perhaps the best part of these studies is that they can be done on the comfort of your own home planet.