POST-DISASTER TRAUMASSurvivors of Weather-Related Disasters May Suffer Accelerated Aging

Published 8 February 2022

What is the toll on the long-term health of the population of the stress caused by major natural disasters? And could exposure to extreme weather events accelerate the aging process? A new study offers sobering insights.

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September 2017 as a high-end Category 4 storm, it left in its wake the largest catastrophe in the history of the island. The storm killed over 3,000 people in its immediate aftermath, knocked out power to nearly all of the island’s 3.4 million residents and caused more than $100 billion in damages.  

What was the toll of this stress and adversity on the long-term health of its population? And could exposure to extreme weather events accelerate the aging process?

“While everyone ages, we don’t all age at the same rate, and our lived experiences, both negative and positive, can alter this pace of aging. One negative life experience, surviving an extreme event, can lead to chronic inflammation and the early onset of some age-related diseases, like heart disease,” said Noah Snyder-Mackler, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. “But we still don’t know exactly how these events get embedded in our bodies leading to negative health effects that may not show up until decades after the event itself.”

As the final impact on the survivors’ mental and physical health remains to be tallied, a group of biologists led by Snyder-Mackler have looked toward one of our close evolutionary cousins for the first clues.

Along with the human toll, the devastation impacted all the island’s wildlife, including a group of free-ranging rhesus macaques living on the isolated island of Cayo Santiago near Puerto Rico. The animals have lived on the island since 1938, when the Caribbean Primate Research Center field station first opened.

Now, the ASU team, led by corresponding author Snyder-Mackler and lead author Marina Watowich — a graduate student at the University of Washington and research scientist at ASU — and their collaborators at the Caribbean Primate Research Center, University of Pennsylvania, University of Exeter, North Carolina Central University, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and New York University, have published one of the first results that shows the effects of natural disasters may have molecularly accelerated aging in the monkeys’ immune systems.