Heart in space: effect of the extraterrestrial environment on the cardiovascular system

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Abstract |

National space agencies and private corporations aim at an extended presence of humans in space in the medium to long term. Together with currently suboptimal technology, microgravity and cosmic rays raise health concerns about deep-space exploration missions. Both of these physical factors affect the cardiovascular system, whose gravity-dependence is pronounced. Heart and vascular function are, therefore, susceptible to substantial changes in weightlessness. The altered cardiovascular function in space causes physiological problems in the postflight period. A compromised cardiovascular system can be excessively vulnerable to space radiation, synergistically resulting in increased damage. The space radiation dose is significantly lower than in patients undergoing radiotherapy, in whom cardiac damage is well-documented following cancer therapy in the thoracic region. Nevertheless, epidemiological findings suggest an increased risk of late cardiovascular disease even with low doses of radiation. Moreover, the peculiar biological effectiveness of heavy ions in cosmic rays might increase this risk substantially. However, whether radiation-induced cardiovascular effects have a threshold at low doses is still unclear. The main countermeasures to mitigate the effect of the space environment on cardiac function are physical exercise, antioxidants, nutraceuticals, and radiation shielding.

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