While we usually think of astronauts as explorers of life beyond this planet, scientists are discovering that astronauts can actually teach us a lot about life here on earth.

The Canadian Space Institute (CSA) recently teamed up with the Institute of Aging, a branch of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, to see what the medical issues faced by astronauts can tell us about the aging process. The two groups pooled resources and knowledge during a workshop in June, and hope to develop an international program as well, according to Dr. Nicole Buckley, Chief Scientist for Life Sciences at the CSA.

Due to their sedentary lifestyle in space, astronauts often develop similar health problems as the elderly, said University of Waterloo Professor Richard Hughson. These include soft bones, a risk of fainting and hardened arteries. Hughson, who specializes in aging and receives funding from the CSA, has performed several studies showing how space life can have adverse effects on an astronaut’s cardiovascular system.

Because astronauts tend to be healthy people, when one aspect of their health starts to deteriorate, it is easy for researchers to see how this may impact other parts of their body. This is opposed to the elderly, where, “one effect can be confounded with other changes occurring at the same time,” said Dr. Buckley.

By teaming up with scientists at the Institute of Aging, the CSA hopes to improve health outcomes through research.

“Our main mandate is to look after astronaut health. However, there are not that many astronauts, and there are many Canadians. We want to help as many people as possible,” said Dr. Buckley.