Space Exploration

Will Space Tourists Be Getting Heart Attacks in Space?

Astronauts are considered by many to be an elite bunch of people; healthy, fit and capable in many disciplines. Went they travel into space they can face health issues related to weightlessness from reduction in bone density to issues with their eyesight. These are people at the peak of physical fitness but what will happen to the rest of us when space tourism really kicks off. It is likely that anyone with underlying health issues could worsen in space. A new study suggests those with cardiovascular issues may suffer heart failure in space!

Space travel and automatic intelligence (AI) are two fabulously interesting topics. Combine them and you have a fascinating story. Dr Lex Van Loon from the Australian National University has been using AI and mathematical models to explore human physiology and the impact of space exploration. In a recent study he created digitally identical AI twins, one with an underlying heart condition. 

The interest driving the study is the advancement toward space tourism and the opening up of space to those less physically fit than astronauts. As space travel becomes more available to the mass population we will start to see a shift in demographic of space travellers to older, more wealthy individuals but they are more likely to have health issues. We will eventually see people with a whole multitude of conditions wanting to holiday in space, but what are the likely impacts. 

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED). Credit: NASA

Microgravity causes a redistribution of fluids around the body and can cause conditions like ‘puffy face bird leg syndrome.’ The name aptly describes the effect, the face swells up and the legs thin. It results in an increase in venous pressure in the upper body, this is fine for healthy people but heart failure sufferers are at a much higher risk. Given that there are over 100 million people around the world that suffer heart failure it is essential this is explored. 

Looking at the wide spectrum of heard failure, conditions can be grouped into two categories; a weak hart that cannot pump effectively and a heart that cannot relax and fill properly. All possible conditions need to be studied with specific ways to treat and mitigate the risk during space travel. 

This is a study that is difficult to collect real data in space so we have to turn to computer modelling to simulate the effects. The team led by Dr Loon showed that a microgravity environment leads to an increase in cardiac output (the quantity of blood pumped by the heart in a given period of time.) This is not a problem for most people but with heart failure patients it is accompanied by a rise in pressure in the left atrial region of the heart, to dangerous levels. If left unchecked, it can lead to a condition where fluid accumulates in the lungs known as a pulmonary edema, making it difficult to breathe!

With the increase in corporate interest in space travel, space tourism is slowly becoming a reality. People can already pay for trips into space but as costs come down, the number of people heading out into space will increase. Eventually, trips into space will be as common as trips to other countries. It is imperative we understand the impact on our health and what we can do to make space as widely accessible as possible without putting our health at risk. 

Source : Heart failure in space: scientists calculate potential health threats facing future space tourists in microgravity

Mark Thompson

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