|With an astronomical number of people reaching the age of 80 and beyond, even NASA has taken to the study of the elderly. When septuagenarian John Glenn, senator from Ohio, boards the space shuttle mission STS-95 Oct. 29 as a payload specialist, geriatric research will reach beyond the stratosphere.Both NASA and National Institute on Aging (NIA) scientists note that the muscle atrophy, sleep disturbances, balance disorders, bone deterioration, cardiovascular deconditioning, and immune-system depression that astronauts experience in a gravity-free environment mimic the aging process of the earthbound. “Whether the basic mechanisms that are involved are the same or different really needs to be established,” said Andrew Monjan, PhD, chief of the neurobiology of aging branch of the NIA, which is collaborating with NASA on the studies. “If they’re the same, then we can use the data from space flight as a way of looking [at the changes] in a more rapid manner than aging.” A key difference is that when the astronauts return to Earth, they eventually regain their physiological losses, which often isn’t the case with the elderly, Monjan said.Before, during, and after the scheduled nine-day flight, Glenn will be pricked, probed, and monitored to measure muscle atrophy, heart rate and function, changes in bone mineral density, equilibrium responses, and melatonin’s effect on sleep-wake cycles, according to Monjan. But he said that he can’t really surmise at this point precisely how the experiments will eventually affect the geriatric population in general. “If we could predict exactly what was going to come out, then there really wouldn’t be a need for the experiment,” he said. “We’re always trying to find out what’s unexpected.”Necessity or boondoggle?Critics charge that Glenn’s flight is merely a publicity stunt to convince the public that NASA still has the right stuff since possible implications from Glenn’s single-test-subject experiments will be limited. Some ask why Glenn should return to space. To such doubters, Brenda Rouse, RN, a nurse who works in the flight medicine clinic at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, retorts, “Why not? He’s certainly a wonderful person, and he blazed the trail for everyone else.”More than TangThere’s been a give and take between the space program and mainstream health care for years, according to Linda Plush, MSN, RN, executive director of the Space Nursing Society in Palmdale, Calif. The society, which serves nurses and other health professionals interested in the aerospace field, has about 150 members worldwide.”People forget that telemedicine and a lot of our remote sensing devices that we use every day in nursing now—almost all of it came out of the space program,” she said. And many of the plastics and other materials used routinely in nursing originated from NASA applications. “The whole deal with blood pressure and vital signs—all of that came out of the need to be able to monitor those astronauts in a remote capsule,” she explained.NASA-funded research has had many crossover applications, according to the space agency. These include microbe detectors, remotely programmable pacemakers, excimer laser angioplasty, insulin delivery systems, and telemetry.Gerontology experts also applaud Glenn’s involvement, though they think that his mere presence could do more to help senior citizens than any possible benefits of the research. “I think it’s more about geriatric ability,” said Harrison G. Bloom, MD, vice chair for clinical affairs in the department of geriatrics and adult development at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. “I think that what it will show is that a man who is 77 can do—and do well—what people much, much younger can do.”The elderly are too often excluded from research unnecessarily, according to Vaunette Fay, PhD, GNP, RN, associate professor and head of the division of gerontology at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center School of Nursing. “Someone who is older shouldn’t be excluded,” she said. “I think there are some real implications [from space research] for older adults.”Even Monjan concedes that Glenn’s most significant contribution may be in the public relations realm. “He’s not just a passenger going up; he’s going to be working. But aside from the scientific aspect of it, we really need to look at it as a positive model for the aging population. One can look at this as having the senator representing what healthy aging can be so that a person who is 77 can really reach for the sky, literally.”For|
John Glenn, pilot of the Mercury-Atlas 6, confers with astronaut nurse Dolores O’Hara, RN, during prelaunch preparations in 1962.
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