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Bone density, eyesight and cancer are a few issues to be addressed

Space is no place for humans according to a recent article by The New York Times, but doctors and researchers are attempting to solve health-related side effects caused by extended trips in space. 
 
NASA has been talking about sending astronauts to Mars come 2030, which entail a 2.5-year mission. This is nearly six times the current standard tour of duty on the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, the longest amount of time any human has left Earth was 438 days, accomplished by Dr. Valery Polyakov on the Russian space station Mir in 1994 and 1995. 
 
The Mars mission will be the longest yet, certainly for any American astronaut. In preparing for such a trailblazing adventure, researchers are trying to resolve past medical problems experienced by astronauts who have been in space for much shorter time periods. 
 
The problems, according to researchers in the NYT article, are mainly caused by the lack of gravity (short-term effects) and exposure to radiation (long-term effects). 
 
For instance, the weakening of bones is a troubling issue that scientists are addressing. Without gravity, astronauts' bodies don't need to support their weight, which affects bone density. In fact, NASA researchers estimated a decade ago that astronaut bone density was decreasing by 1 to 2 percent per month. 
 
But scientists have found that strapping astronauts to treadmills and having them run helps with such issues. Osteoporosis drugs have been used as an aide as well. 


[Image Source: Warner Bros. Pictures]
 
It was noted, though, that formation and destruction occur at accelerated rates, which means scientists don’t know if an astronaut's bone is as strong as when they left. 

Eyesight changes also need to be addressed, but researchers haven't found a real solution to this yet as they did with bone density. Just five years ago, NASA scientists found that the eyes of astronauts appeared to be "squashed" after time in space. They saw hints of swelling in the optic nerves and blemishes on the retinas. 

NASA believes this is caused by the shift of fluids in the body moving upwards toward the head and chest, and the higher pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid in the skull pushing on the back of the eyeballs. 

However, this has not yet been proven and there are many questions remaining, such as why it usually affects the right eye more than the left, and men more so than women.

Life without gravity in space can also affect the body’s neurovestibular system, which tells people which way is up. Scientists have thought about using artificial gravity to relieve such problems, but this could lead to issues with the mission -- such as an accident with the spacecraft. 

Radiation is another problem, since it raises astronauts' cancer risk. NASA typically doesn't allow the lifetime cancer risk to be raised by more than three percentage points, but 2.5 years is a long time and could very well pass that point.

It's also been found that the amount of radiation humans are subjected to in space has been affecting the brains of mice in similar studies that try to recreate that environment. The mice were slower when traveling mazes than those not exposed to that amount of radiation. 

NASA will be watching and testing solutions on Scott J. Kelly, an American astronaut who will head to the ISS for a year in 2015. The agency will keep an eye on his health status before, during and after the trip in an effort to see how an extended time in space will affect him -- which could help determine solutions for the 2030 Mars trip. 

Source: The New York Times





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