Kinesiology researchers work with astronauts to study aging and cardiovascular health

Friday, June 21, 2019

David Saint-Jacques waving from the ISS
Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut David Saint-Jacques will return to Earth in a few days after more than six months in space. Using data obtained from Saint-Jacques during his space mission, a Waterloo research team is helping to develop strategies for healthy aging here on Earth.

That’s because in some ways, space travel mimics the aging process. After only a few months in space, astronauts begin to develop insulin resistance, and their arteries are stiffer by the equivalent of aging 20 years. Stiff arteries can affect blood pressure, a common issue in older adults. These changes can interfere with movement and cognition, and contribute to the development of heart disease.

Insulin resistance is a precursor to type 2 diabetes, for which middle aged and older adults are at higher risk. Canadian astronauts are the perfect subjects to study aging and cardiovascular health over a short period of time.

At an event held on June 21 at the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging, Richard Hughson, a Waterloo Kinesiology professor and Schlegel Research Chair in Vascular Aging and Brain Health, talked about Vascular Echo, his research project funded by the CSA, to which Saint-Jacques is contributing. 

Vascular Echo is named after the technology the team is using to collect data, and will inform the next stage in Hughson’s research findings. He had previously found that after only a few months in space, astronauts’ arteries stiffen by the equivalent of aging 20 years on Earth.

During this most recent project, Hughson and his international team, will compare cardiovascular data collected from astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) – like Saint-Jacques’ – with older adults here on Earth to try to find ways to slow down or even dial back stiffening arteries. 

Hughson has already worked with several astronauts, most notably former Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield during his time as commander aboard the ISS in 2012-13.

“It is very exciting for our team, my students and the community that we can do our research with Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques,” says Hughson. “We are collecting ultrasound images using the robotic ultrasound system and taking blood samples on the ISS to explore the rapid ‘aging-like’ changes to arteries during space flight.”

The team, which includes researchers in France, as well as Danielle Greaves in Kinesiology, communicated with Saint-Jacques through a video connection to the ISS, and guided him through the research protocol, allowing them to see in real time the data being collected as Saint-Jacques used ultrasound to assess the health of his arteries.

“Often the most surprising discoveries happen at the furthest reaches of exploration,” says retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. “The International Space Station is a unique laboratory, pushing our collective abilities and knowledge to the very limit. I’m delighted to be a part of Canada’s research there, understanding and benefiting the health of our seniors.”

Only in the past few years have researchers started to understand the full effects of space travel on cardiovascular health. Partnerships between Canadian researchers and astronauts have made these discoveries possible, and strengthened Canada’s reputation for leading innovative space research.