When it comes to answering some of the more persistent questions about aging, U.S. Sen. John Glenn looks to the stars.
For the former Mercury astronaut, who was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, this may not seem all that unusual, although that may not be the case for the rest of us.
The 75-year-old Ohio Democrat has recently hinted that he wouldn't mind returning to space for the purposes of advancing research into aging.
Staffers in Glenn's office say the boss has often spoken about going back to the heavens. The idea could be taken more seriously following 61-year-old astronaut Story Musgrave's flight on the recently concluded Columbia shuttle mission. Musgrave is the oldest person to fly into space.
Glenn also has some other arguments on his side.
He says zero gravity's effects on the body mimic those of the aging process here on Earth.
Reflecting that link, NASA's studies of life and biosciences have found "some notable parallels between what happens to astronauts in space and what happens to the elderly right here on Earth. And if we can find what triggers some of these similarities, perhaps we will have a whole new handle on approaching difficulties that people have right here on Earth," Glenn told his Senate colleagues during budget debates earlier this year.
NASA's director of life sciences, Joan Vernikos, explains in her report, "Parallel Processes? The Study of Human Adaptation to Space Helps Us Understand Aging," that there are quite a few things we can learn about aging from space travel:
"Certain physiological changes that occur in space also occur with aging: for instance, cardiovascular deconditioning, balance disorders, weakening bones and muscles, disturbed sleep and depressed immune response. An important difference, however, is that these changes are reversible in astronauts."
The number of people over the age of 60 has more than doubled since 1963, from 17 million to 44 million. The Census Bureau projects that in 50 years that number will grow to nearly 100 million people.
There is also expected to be a population explosion in the ranks of the frail elderly, those over 85. Today they number a little more than 3 million, but by the year 2050 the number is expected to grow to nearly 19 million people.
With a grayer America looming on the horizon, Glenn believes it makes good fiscal sense to do what is necessary today to make that population healthier and therefore less likely to put a strain on the health care system in the future.
"We spend roughly $6 billion on the manned space program. The research component is a small portion of that, and the research in aging in space flight is an even smaller portion of that," says Chris Kline, a Glenn aide specializing in space issues.
Kline added that "given the minute cost and the larger aging population, it turns out to be a small investment. Any breakthrough in any of these areas would more than cover the cost of the experiments."
The question is whether what we learn in space can be translated into concrete solutions on Earth. Glenn says NASA's track record in this area is excellent. In his Senate speech he cited a number of advances that have been made because NASA and other government-funded researchers were pushing the limits of technology.
One example was the Pillsbury company's work with NASA to develop a safe diet for the astronauts.
"In the early days of the space program, NASA wrestled with the question of how and what to feed astronauts. Pillsbury responded to this problem by developing the hazard analysis and critical control point, HACCP, concept, which was designed to prevent food safety problems rather than catch them after they had occurred. Subsequently, this system was incorporated in the Food and Drug Administration regulation on canned foods and has since become industry practice and provides for safety for food that our producers here can now ship all over the world," Glenn said.
NASA also has a strong self-interest in resolving some of these issues. Bone loss and orthostatic balance (maintaining a constant flow of blood to the brain to prevent blackouts) are two major issues.
"The balance issue and space sickness are major," says Kline, "with nearly one in three astronauts suffering from this. Some sickness has almost totally incapacitated some of these astronauts, hindering their ability to do their work."
NASA and the National Institute on Aging (NIA) are planning to meet early next year to devise a series of experiments that may shed more light on the aging process.
The "Aging and Space Flight, Expanding the Science Base" conference is supposed to yield some tangible ideas that would then be submitted to NASA for consideration on future shuttle and space station missions.