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How Long Term Space Travel Will Affect The Human Body

One extremely useful way to understand the consequences of a particular action, like going to space, is performing a twin study. This is where two identical twins are selected and one is put into a condition –- in this case, spending a year in space –- while the other one lives their life as normal. Then, at the end of the test period, researchers can compare the two to see what differences have arisen. That’s what NASA did with its landmark twin study, published in 2019, in which it compared the health outcomes of astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly after Scott spent a year in space on the International Space Station and Mark spent it on Earth.

The results, according to NASA, looked for changes in Scott’s body at the physiological and molecular levels, as well as any cognitive changes. The researchers found changes to all sorts of aspects of the body, including changes to the protective telomeres that are part of our DNA and naturally shorten as we age. Scott’s telomeres were changed by his time in space — but they actually got longer, which was surprising, and returned to normal length when he returned to Earth.

Other findings are that Scott’s gene expression was slightly changed, and his gut bacteria was very changed too, though this could be due to eating the prepacked and dried food available on the space station. There was good news for astronaut health in this study, as well, showing that Scott’s flu vaccines worked as expected and that his cognitive performance remained unchanged, meaning he didn’t suffer from problems with alertness or spatial orientation.

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