Experiencing weather related disasters may accelerate age, study suggests


A study conducted at Arizona State University found that a hurricane in Puerto Rico altered the immune gene expression of monkeys in the region, accelerating their biological age by two years on average.

The study, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, observed the impact of Hurricane Maria on free-ranging rhesus macaques, monkeys living on an isolated island in Puerto Rico. According to the study, the rhesus macaques share many behavioral and biological similarities with humans and have a lifespan about a quarter of the amount of people. Having been studied for decades, researchers were able to gather blood samples from the island’s monkeys and compare them to samples collected after the storm. To study the storm’s impact on the monkeys' biological age, researchers conducted a global analysis of immune gene expression on the samples.

The results suggested the hurricane altered four percent of genes expressed in immune cells. According to the study’s researchers, the altered genes that had increased expression can cause increased inflammation and the genes where expression decreased are associated with protein translation, adaptive immune response, protein folding and refolding, and T cells. The most affected gene researchers identified was the monkey’s heat shock gene, which has been linked to cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s disease. The study showed, in some cases, this gene’s activity was two-times lower in blood samples taken after the hurricane than the samples taken before the storm. Researchers concluded that monkey blood samples taken after the hurricane showed a gene expression profile that was on average, 1.96 years older than those prior to the storm, which would be about seven to eight years of a human lifespan.

Together, these results suggest that natural disasters such as hurricanes have the potential to accelerate biological age. Although this investigation involved only monkeys, according to the study’s researchers, human survivors of extreme events have an increased risk of chronic inflammation and early onset of age-related diseases, implying similar results could be found in future studies involving humans. Integrative practitioners should be aware of this study, and the effects that natural disasters, that are becoming increasingly common, may have on their patients’ biological age.