Astronauts lose decades of bone mass as they travel into space. Even years after they returned to Earth, bone density had not been fully restored. Scientists warn in a new study published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports‘, that this is a “major concern” for future missions to Mars, which will take several years to complete.
Scientists have been researching astronauts’ bone density for some time. After all, while they are in space there is no gravity, so there is no pressure on the body and the astronaut swims for a long time instead of walking. Previous research has shown that an average of 1 to 2 percent of bone density – the amount of bone mineral in bone tissue – is lost per month an astronaut spends in space.
As we age, bone density decreases anyway. As a result, our bones become more brittle and break faster. For astronauts, this process is accelerated during their trips outside the planet. The density of bone they lose during their stay on the International Space Station (ISS) is comparable to the effect of decades.
Nine of the 17 astronauts who took part in the study also found that bone density did not (completely) recover once they returned to Earth. “The more time you spend in space, the more bones you will lose for good,” said Stephen Boyd (University of Calgary, Canada), director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health.
What about mission years?
Boyd says he is very concerned about future missions to Mars, which may require astronauts to spend years in space. “We don’t know if it’s going to get worse over time or not,” Boyd said. “Maybe the loss stabilizes after a while, or we continue to lose bone density. I can’t imagine astronauts continuing to lose bone density until there is nothing left.”
Boyd and his team’s findings are already in line with a model study conducted in 2020. It has already shown that 33 percent of astronauts are at risk of developing osteoporosis, a chronic condition in which the bones are more fragile.
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