They say that space is the last great frontier. As Elon Musk and his fellow visionaries strive to open that vast territory beyond our Earthly home to commercial travel, though, space feels ever more accessible.
And with the US government recently creating the Space Force branch of the American military, it certainly seems as if humanity’s presence in space is going to last a while.
But space isn’t just an opportunity for adventure. It also offers humanity more than a bastion of military defense.
Space exploration has the potential to impact life on Earth. In fact, it already has a long and storied history of doing so. That smartphone in your hand and the GPS in your car are just two of the vast and ever-growing list of technologies that would never have been possible without space science.
Perhaps the most exciting benefits of space exploration are what it may mean for the future of aging. Thanks to advances in space science, we may soon be able to dramatically slow the aging process. We’re also cultivating new pioneering strategies in medical care for age-related and non-age-related diseases alike.
As it turns out, space is the ultimate laboratory for studying the aging process in humans because the human body ages much faster in space. Space exploration provides an invaluable opportunity to understand what forces, exactly, lead tissues to deteriorate and ultimately die.
This also allows researchers to experiment with new therapeutics to mitigate the effects of aging. And because the cellular aging process is accelerated in space, it will take far less time for researchers to determine which experimental treatments hold the most promise.
That means that thanks to space science, the gap between your chronological age and your biological age is only going to get wider. While there’s nothing you can do to alter the number of years you’ve been walking around on this planet, of course, with new medical treatments and a healthy lifestyle, your biological age can actually be reversed. You can retain, and even regain, your vitality and vigor not just for years, but for decades.
All this talk of space science as the ultimate fountain of youth probably sounds a lot like a fairy tale. In fact, though, it is very real.
Consider kidney stones. It’s one of the most painful conditions there is, and it’s also one of the most common. And while it usually strikes people between the ages of 20 and 50, older adults aren’t immune. When an older person develops a kidney stone, though, it’s usually much more serious, with an increased risk of infection and other potentially fatal complications.
But as it turns out, the effects of microgravity also put astronauts at increased risk of kidney stones. And the very same treatments that were developed to help to prevent “space stones,” and to treat them at long — make that very long — distances are now being used to kidney stone patients here on Earth.
For example, to prevent potentially mission-ending kidney stones in astronauts, NASA developed a hand-held ultrasound machine that uses a tractor beam to help move, shrink, or shatter stones, allowing them to be passed more easily. And, increasingly, hospitals and doctors’ offices are bringing that same technology in-house for their patients.
For older patients, this quick, effective, and non-invasive treatment is much safer than interventions requiring anesthesia. It’s also a far healthier and more appealing option than trying to white-knuckle through the pain.
When astronauts spend a lot of time in space, they’re not exactly able to call for takeout, and the nearest grocery store is a really long haul. But given the effects of microgravity on the body, astronauts need good nutrition. Lots of it. And it needs to be easy to store and to prepare.
When you age, your nutritional needs are similar to those of astronauts. In fact, good nutrition is one of your most important weapons for keeping well as you age. And, again, space science has a part to play, because food scientists and nutritionists have discovered ways to produce nutrient-packed and tasty foods that can be stored for months in inhospitable without losing their nutritional value and can be easily prepared or eaten right out of the package.
And what’s good for astronauts is good for you! Thanks to space food, seniors who might have difficulty preparing a nutritious meal from scratch can enjoy prepackaged, high-quality food right from the container!
If you’ve got more than a couple of decades under your belt, it’s probably going to come as no surprise that two of the earliest and most significant signs of aging are bone and muscle loss.
And here, again, spaceflights acts as a sort of preview of the aging process. Astronauts in microgravity lose essential bone- and muscle-building nutrients, such as calcium and phosphorous.
Researchers are hard at work trying to understand the musculoskeletal effects of spaceflight on astronauts. The hope, ultimately, is to develop treatment protocols that not only will better enable astronauts to withstand long spaceflights, but that can also be used to help seniors retain their strength and vitality well into their golden years.
Preventing the loss of essential vitamins and minerals isn’t just going to strengthen bones and muscles, though. It’s also going to strengthen teeth, and that’s a major concern as people age. Without strong teeth and a healthy bite, it’s much more difficult to load up on the fresh fruits and vegetables you need to stay well and strong throughout the lifespan.
Let’s face it: our astronauts are the best, brightest, and bravest among us. But even they struggle with the loneliness and isolation of long spaceflight. And, in a lot of ways, the seclusion they face parallels the seclusion a lot of seniors experience as they age. Increasing frailty and the loss of social and familial ties can make them feel like they’re cast out into their own little world.
But it doesn’t have to be that way — and our rocket men and women are proving it. In recent decades, engineers have created the most innovative telecommunications technologies the world has ever seen.
And what’s good enough to seamlessly stream a video chat in real-time to the International Space Station is certainly more than good enough to host a flawless virtual visit with grandma in the next town over.
In fact, that strong social connection, even if through virtual devices, may well be the true fountain of youth. According to recent estimates, loneliness is as dangerous to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes every day. The elderly lonely are at a nearly 20% higher risk of death from any cause than their same-age counterparts who are not lonely.
The search for the proverbial fountain of youth nearly as old as human history itself. But it may just be that we’ve been looking in the wrong place all alone. It may be that the fountain of youth isn’t on Earth, but in space.