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article imageApollo astronauts at greater risk of heart disease than others

By Arthur Weinreb     Jul 30, 2016 in Science
Tallahassee - A recently released study shows astronauts who left Earth's orbit are four or five times more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease than astronauts who never left orbit or never flew.
The preliminary study, led by Michael Delp of Florida State University, was published on Thursday in Scientific Reports. It concluded some Apollo astronauts who were the only humans to ever leave the Earth's orbit were more likely to die in their 50s or 60s from heart-related problems as a result of exposure to radiation.
The Apollo program ran from 1961 to 1972. Eleven manned space flights took place between 1968 and 1972 and of those flights, nine left the Earth's orbit and travelled into deep space. While astronauts have not left the orbit of the Earth since 1972, plans are in the works to orbit the moon and eventually fly to Mars.
The study shows that of the 24 Apollo astronauts who flew into deep space, eight have died. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell was not included in the study as his death came after the data for the study had been collected. The study concluded astronauts, all physically fit and in their 30s, who went into deep space were four to five more times likely to die from heart-related problems than were other astronauts who never ventured beyond the Earth's orbit.
As Fox News reported, the astronauts who never flew or who only orbited around the Earth had a much lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease than did the general population of Americans between the ages of 55-64.
Cardiovascular disease suffered by astronauts has been found to be caused by radiation. As [i]Astronomy[/i] magazine reports, on Earth and in low Earth orbit people are protected from the harmful effects of radiation by the Earth's magnetic field.
However once the Van Allen Belts are crossed, this protection ceases. Although the spacecraft had shields that provided some protection against harmful radiation, it was not enough to protect the astronauts.
According to Delp, the radiation damaged the endothelial cells that line the walls of blood vessels and help prevent the build-up of plaque. The presence of plaque results in what is commonly called hardening of the arteries and the lack of proper functioning of endothelial cells can lead to strokes, blood clots, heart disease and heart attacks.
It was known radiation encountered in deep space could cause problems but Space.com reports most scientists believed it would take years of exposure before harmful effects would be realized. This study indicated as little as two weeks' exposure to radiation in deep space can cause problems.
Although previous studies have been done on the cardiovascular health of astronauts, this is the first one that compared astronauts who left the Earth's orbit with those that did not. The astronauts were all presumed to have been in good health and physically fit when they were in the program. A downside to this study is the obvious small size of the sample.
Delp said in the future, researchers need to find the minimum amount of radiation required before harmful effects can be noticed and to come up with actions such as more shielding to help lower the harmful effects of this radiation.
The study can be read here.
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