“How many of you experience dizziness when you stand up?” Professor Richard Hughson asked last year at one of our monthly lunch and learn sessions. Every hand went 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 be surprising: Astronauts on the International Space Station.
Astronauts experience accelerated aging in space—very fit astronauts return with stiffened arteries, 10 or 20 years ahead of normal aging. At the RIA, Hughson and his colleagues connect with astronauts who, with guidance from the team, use an ultrasound machine that is robotically controlled from the RIA lab to measure cardiac function and how blood is pumped through the arteries. The astronauts listen to instruction and use the ultrasound probe to send images back to the RIA for review and analysis.
This exciting work with the International Space Station is being used to inform aging research at the RIA. 80 retirement home residents were recruited to participate in a study. They were fitted with a device attached to their forehead to measure how efficiently oxygen is delivered 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 disruptions in oxygen delivery and are less stable when they stand putting them at greater risk for falls, injury and hospitalization.
While the mechanisms responsible for aging in space are different than those on Earth, research into arterial stiffness, blood flow and falls is crucial to understanding heart and brain health. There is a known link between arterial stiffness and loss of specific cognitive function. And we know that reduced blood flow in the brain is what leads to dizziness and falls.
With your continued help, research findings from Professor Hughson’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.