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Survivors of Natural Disasters May Age Faster

The good news is you managed to survive a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, or other natural disasters. The bad news is you may age faster!

A new study suggests that the trauma of surviving a natural disaster may actually accelerate the aging process. The study was based on the impact Hurricane Maria had on a local population of rhesus macaque monkeys when it tore through Puerto Rico in 2017.

The study found that the trauma had aged the monkeys by an average of two years, corresponding to approximately seven to eight years of the human lifespan. “Our findings suggest that experiencing an extreme hurricane is associated with alterations in immune cell gene regulation, similar to aging, potentially accelerating aspects of the aging process,” the authors wrote.

“While everyone ages, we don’t all age at the same rate, and our lived experiences, both negative and positive, can alter this pace of aging. One negative life experience, surviving an extreme event, can lead to chronic inflammation and the early onset of some age-related diseases, like heart disease,” said Noah Snyder-Mackler of Arizona State University, co-author of a new study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers are trying to understand the long-term psychological and physical effects of extreme weather events on people by studying macaques, which are closely related to humans and may reveal how humans respond to the same kinds of events.

While disease development may differ even among people of the same chronological age, those who have suffered extremely adverse experiences run a greater risk of developing diseases seen more commonly in older people. How traumatic experiences promote disease is not yet known.

The authors believe that extreme adversity effectively ages the body. People can differ in their biological age, as measured by molecular signposts in our immune system, genes, and physiology.

“From this study, we have measured the molecular changes associated with aging, including disruptions of protein-folding genes, greater inflammatory immune cell marker gene expression, and older biological aging,” said study co-author Marina Watowich.

“Our findings suggest that differences in immune cell gene expression in individuals exposed to an extreme natural disaster were in many ways similar to the effects of the natural aging process,” said Snyder-Mackler. “We also observed evidence for accelerated biological aging in samples collected after animals experienced Hurricane Maria.”

In blood samples, researchers found that four percent of the monkeys’ genes expressed in immune cells were changed by the storm. Also, there was a higher expression of genes involved in inflammation, while genes expressing protein translation and protein folding/refolding, the adaptive immune response, and T cells were also affected.

Heat shock genes, which are essential to making proteins in cells, were also suppressed. Some had their activity reduced by twofold after the hurricane. These are also implicated in Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

The researchers also found a distinct link between the trauma and gene expression in which the effect of the storm resembled the effect of an aged immune system. Snyder-Mackler noted that genes involved in inflammation changed among macaques that survived the storm, who then resembled older monkeys.

The researchers hope their study will lead to a better understanding of aging and improved mitigation following natural disasters.

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