We have long known that traveling in space carries many health risks – astronauts are exposed to higher levels of radiation than the rest of us, and have reported such health problems as partial blindness on their return Earth – but we never knew if astronauts had to die prematurely by working in space.
"The challenge has always been to understand whether astronauts are as healthy as they would be if they had otherwise been comparably busy but never went to space," said Robert Reynolds, mortality researcher, in an interview. which was published on Wednesday by Reuters . "To do that, we had to find a group that was comparable in terms of several important factors but was never in space."
Fortunately, he found one ̵
Astronauts are generally physically fit and wealthier than the average American and have access to better health care. This makes it difficult to study the mortality of astronauts – they differ too little from the average person to make informed conclusions. But they are not too different from the players of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB), who also tend to be fit, well-off, and treated by world-class medical professionals.
In a study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine Reynolds and his colleagues at Mortality Research & Consulting, Inc. describe how they compared data from men between 1960 and mid-2018 for either the NBA or the MLB played with data about male US astronauts.
This comparison concluded that both athletes and astronauts had a lower risk of premature death than the general US population. Astronauts also died from a lower rate of heart disease than athletes and from cancer at about the same rate.
"We can not be sure if we have the data, but we speculate that cardiovascular fitness in particular is the most important factor in longevity of astronauts," said Reynolds Reuters .
Past ≠ Future
This study closes an important gap in our understanding of the effects of space travel on astronauts, but we still have much to learn. For example, we know that space influences female astronauts differently than their male counterparts do, and do they also have lower mortality rates than the general population?
In addition, we have sent humans into space for only 57 years and less than 600 people have traveled. There is not much data to work with, and astronaut mortality conclusions may change as more becomes available.
Just as Francis Cucinotta, an expert on radiation biology who was not involved in the study, told Reuters simply because space travel in today's astronauts is not associated with premature death, that does not mean that this is true Future will be the case. For example, missions to Mars are in the works, and these would expose astronauts to a radiation dose 50 to 100 times higher than previous world missions, Cucinotta said.
And radiation is only one factor. There is also a chance that the mortality of future astronauts could be affected by the dust of the mast to the psychological burden of long-term space travel. So before we risk years of killing everyone by sending an airplane into space, we need to make sure that we do as much research as possible here on Earth.
READ MORE: The work in space does not seem to shorten the lives of astronauts [ Reuters ]