As baby boomers become senior citizens, scientists hope to discover how to relieve symptoms of aging in the space age by studying symptoms shared by astronauts in flight and the elderly.
When he blasts off in October, John Glenn will be both.
Scientists hope the Ohio senator’s second visit to space will teach them how to prevent the bone, muscle and cardiovascular breakdowns that afflict people as they get older on Earth.
NASA announced Friday that the 76-year-old Glenn, who 36 years ago became the first American to orbit the Earth, will return to space on a shuttle mission this fall. A primary reason for his venture is to help researchers learn about aging.
“We are beyond mere descriptions of old age,” said Robert N. Butler, director of the Internal Longevity Center at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.
“If we can get some new hypotheses and insights from his voyage, it may give us more ideas of why things happen and how things happen,” Butler said. “Then we can move on to find models of how we can still contribute, be adventuresome and vigorous as we age.”
NASA and the National Institutes on Aging will measure Glenn’s reactions to symptoms common to both astronauts and the elderly, such as bone, muscle and cardiovascular deterioration. Other symptoms include decreases in immune systems and balance problems.
Skeptics of the usefulness of Glenn’s mission argue that one person hardly makes a representative sample of the aging population.
But Glenn has a 40-year portfolio of annual checkups that started with the rigorous examinations of the first seven NASA astronauts. This record will help scientists trace the effect space has on his aging process - the first steps to knowing how people will age on extended space flights such as projected trips to Mars.
Since no one Glenn’s age has ever rocketed into orbit, experts are unsure whether his advanced age poses additional health risks.
Glenn, who exercises daily, is in excellent physical condition, NASA doctors said after examinations. But he will be 77 when he blasts off, and experts speculate that could mean higher health risks.
Kenneth Baldwin, professor of physiology at the University of California, Irvine, said Glenn might experience more trouble standing on his return than most returning astronauts. The heart has difficulty in adjusting to Earth’s gravity, and this would be exacerbated by Glenn’s low blood pressure, a common condition among older Americans, Baldwin said.
Both Baldwin and Butler allowed that the opposite might just as easily happen: Glenn might adjust better to differences in gravity because his body has had more experience shifting to different environments over the course of his life than the bodies of younger colleagues.
“He just might surprise us,” Butler said.
Glenn said reducing surprises is the point of exploration.
“We’ll never know if we don’t go,” he said.