Effects of a major natural disaster on the pace of aging in a nonhuman primate model
Environmental disasters are deeply damaging to the health and welfare of the human population. Such
disasters have the potential to accelerate the aging process, which is the primary risk factor for most diseases.
Disasters may acutely alter aging rates, but also result in persistent and/or cumulative effects across the
lifespan. Identifying age-accelerating consequences of environmental disasters and mitigating their impacts is
therefore critical. However, ethical and logistical challenges limit the availability of pre-disaster baseline data,
as well as our ability to quantify aging across more than a few domains (e.g., molecular markers in blood,
physical frailty) directly in humans. Moreover, uncovering long-term disaster-linked consequences is
challenging because humans are so long-lived, and because specific demographic groups often tend to
emigrate away from impacted areas, biasing longitudinal studies of the affected population. These difficulties
can be overcome by studying shorter-lived nonhuman primates, which share much of their biology and
behavior with humans, exposed to natural disasters.
The objective of this proposal is to leverage our long-term, multi-institute study of aging in the rhesus macaque
population of Cayo Santiago island, Puerto Rico, which was heavily impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Damage to Cayo Santiago included destruction of all man-made structures, the death of >95% of vegetation,
and flooding of large parts of the island. Nonetheless, almost all of our long-term study subjects survived. Our
objective is to use this natural experiment to quantify how an extreme natural disaster affects the pace of aging
across domains (molecular, physiological, physical, social), and to test if these effects persist across the
We will measure the acute effects of the storm (Aim 1) in two ways: cross-sectionally, by comparing the pace
of aging across multiple tissue types in individuals that did and did not live through the storm and that were
sampled the year before vs the year after it (Aim 1a); longitudinally, by comparing pre-storm sampling to
samples collected in the 1-2 years after the storm from the same individuals, all of whom lived through the
storm. We will then measure the chronic effects of the storm (Aim 2), by comparing the groups sampled in Aim
1a to a third group of individuals sampled 4 years after the storm (Aim 2a), and by continuing to follow our
longitudinal subjects for a further 5 years - up to half of their adult lifespan (Aim 2b).
Our study will provide unprecedented insights into fundamental questions about how natural disasters and
extreme weather events affect the aging process, both acutely and across the lifespan, in the most human-
relevant animal model of health, disease, and aging – the rhesus macaque.