Rich’s Story

“How many of you experience dizziness when you stand up?” Rich asks at our monthly lunch and learn, raising his hand. Every hand goes up. “You know why that happens? Because we all have trouble regulating our blood pressure and adapting quickly to that change from sitting to standing. What I want to know is how frequently this might happen, why, and what can we do about it.” Part of where he finds that answer might surprise you. Astronauts!

Astronauts experience accelerated aging in space—very fit astronauts return with stiffened arteries, 10 or 20 years ahead of normal aging. Here at the RIA, Rich and his colleagues connect with astronauts on the International Space Station who, with guidance from here on the ground, use an ultrasound machine to measure cardiac function and pumping capacity. The astronauts listen to instruction and use the ultrasound wand to send images back to the RIA for review and analysis.

While the mechanisms responsible for aging in space are different than those on Earth, this research into arterial stiffness is crucial to understanding heart and brain health. We know that there is a link between arterial stiffness and loss of specific cognitive function, depending on which part of the brain is affected. And we know that blood flow in the brain is what leads to dizziness and falls. Here’s exactly how this research was applied to help older adults right now. 80 residents were recruited for a study. They were fitted with a device attached to their forehead which measures into the brain tissue and can see what’s happening with oxygen delivery to the brain. They laid down on a bed for 10 minutes and then stood up. The study concluded that 1 in 5 older and reasonably healthy adults experience blood pressure disruptions in the transition from sitting to standing and are more likely to fall, and possibly get hurt and require hospitalization.

With your continued help, research findings from Rich’s work with the astronauts and his projects monitoring oxygen delivery to the brain during daily living will be used to benefit us all as we age.

Rich Hughson is the Schlegel Research Chair in Vascular Aging and Brain Health and his research is changing our understanding of cardiovascular health.