Study finds survivors of weather-related disasters may have accelerated aging

February 7, 2022

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? Rhesus macaques resting in the remnants of a forest that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria directly hit Cayo Santiago island and Puerto Rico in September, 2017. Rhesus macaques resting in the remnants of a forest that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria directly hit Cayo Santiago and Puerto Rico in September 2017. Download Full Image

“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.

Accelerated aging

As a high-end Category 4 hurricane, Maria caused massive devastation to the natural habitat and research infrastructure on Cayo Santiago. Remarkably, only 2.75% of the macaque population died in the immediate aftermath of the storm. And in the year after the hurricane, there was no difference in survival. But, was the health of the hurricane survivors affected in other ways?

Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria over the Leeward Islands near peak intensity and approaching Puerto Rico on Sept. 19, 2017, as a Category 5 hurricane. It made landfall as a high Category 4 hurricane, and in its wake, was the largest catastrophe in the history of the island. Photo courtesy of NOAA

People of the same chronological age — the number of years since birth — can differ in when and if they develop disease. It is well-established that people who have suffered extremely adverse experiences have higher risk of developing heart disease and other diseases more common in older individuals. How these detrimental experiences “get under the skin” to promote disease is still unknown. One idea is that this phenomenon is potentially due to extreme adversity “aging” the body. People can differ in their biological age, which can be measured by molecular signposts embedded in our genes, immune system and physiology.

“From this study, we have measured the molecular changes associated with aging, including disruptions of protein-folding genes, greater inflammatory immune cell marker gene expression and older biological aging,” Watowich said.

After a careful analysis of the genes expressed in the macaques’ immune cells, the researchers found that the adversity resulting from the hurricane may have accelerated aging of the immune system.

“On average, monkeys who lived through the hurricane had immune gene expression profiles that had aged two extra years, or approximately seven to eight years of human life span,” Watowich said.

The findings suggest that severe weather events — which are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change — may lead to biologically detrimental consequences for those who experience them. This is especially pressing given that hurricanes and other extreme weather events are becoming stronger and more common with climate change.

Biological aging

One kilometer off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico lies Cayo Santiago, a 15.2-hectare island home to a population of 1,800 free-ranging rhesus macaques that have been studied for almost a century.

A rhesus monkey family

A family of rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago one year after the island was struck by Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Noah Snyder-Mackler

“Cayo Santiago was the first part of Puerto Rico hit by Hurricane Maria and took on the full force of the Category 4 storm," Snyder-Mackler said. “The hurricane destroyed homes and infrastructure across Puerto Rico, and on Cayo Santiago it decimated most of the vegetation, as well as the water cisterns and research infrastructure needed to maintain the field station.”

The rhesus macaques share many behavioral and biological features of people, including how their bodies age, but compressed into a life span one quarter of ours. By studying the macaques, the scientific team knew they could get estimates of aging in years rather than the decades from equivalent human studies.

To test how Hurricane Maria influenced immune cell gene regulation and aging, Watowich and the rest of the team were able to leverage a collection of blood samples and history of detailed demographic data from age-matched subsets of the Cayo Santiago rhesus macaque population.

By performing a global analysis of immune gene expression, they found 4% of genes expressed in immune cells were altered after the hurricane. Of these, genes that had higher expression after the hurricane were involved in inflammation, and genes dampened by the hurricane were those involved in protein translation, protein folding/refolding, the adaptive immune response and T cells.

The down regulation of so-called heat shock genes, which promote the proper function of protein-making in our cells, was most affected, some with two times lower activity after Hurricane Maria. These genes have also been implicated in cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s disease.

Remarkably, they found a strong correlation in the hurricane exposure and aging effects on gene expression, where the effect of the hurricane was similar to the effect of the immune system getting older.

To understand how the hurricane may have affected amounts of immune cell populations, they looked at profiles from single-cell RNA sequencing to identify genes that are preferentially expressed in key immune cell types.

“Overall, cell-specific markers of canonical pro-inflammatory immune cells, such as CD14+ monocytes, had higher expression in older individuals and those that experienced the hurricane. Further, expression of helper T-cell genes, an anti-inflammatory cell type, decreased in older animals and those after the hurricane. Together, this possibly implicates more inflammatory activity in animals after storm, similar to what we see in older individuals,” Snyder-Mackler said.  

Getting under the skin

From their long-term studies, as part of a collaboration with the Caribbean Primate Research Center, University of Pennsylvania, University of Exeter and New York University, they had four years of data prior to Hurricane Maria (n = 435) and one year after (n = 108) Hurricane Maria. They hypothesized that exposure to the hurricane would recapitulate molecular changes associated with the natural process of aging.

“Our findings suggest that differences in immune cell gene expression in individuals exposed to an extreme natural disaster were in many ways similar to the effects of the natural aging process,” said Snyder-Mackler. “We also observed evidence for accelerated biological aging in samples collected after animals experienced Hurricane Maria.”

Watowich said, “Importantly, we identify a critical mechanism — immune cell gene regulation — that may explain how adversity, specifically in the context of natural disasters, may ultimately ‘get under the skin’ to drive age-associated disease onset and progression.”

Interestingly, not all monkeys responded similarly to the hurricane. For example, some monkeys’ biological ages increased much more than others. The team hypothesizes that there may be other aspects of the monkey’s environment that can influence their response to adversity.

For example, social support might play a critical role. It is possible that monkeys with greater social support after the storm were better able to overcome any detrimental effects — an aspect the team hopes to investigate soon. 

"Social support can buffer humans and other animals from the consequences of adverse events," said University of Exeter Associate Professor Lauren Brent. "Socially integrated people — and monkeys — live longer, healthier lives. Next steps in our work will be to investigate if social factors influence the pace of ageing following natural disaster."

The study did have its limitations — foremost, that they could not measure aging rates within the same individuals before or after the hurricane.

For future studies, they hope the work can expand to include longer-term studies of every individual within a population to learn more about the intersection between biological aging, adversity and social structures and in the face of a natural disaster.

Lastly, they hope their results will encourage efforts to develop a better understanding of aging and adversity and, one day, even a successful mitigation strategy to lessen the toll from natural disasters.

The paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is titled, "Natural disaster and immunological aging in a nonhuman primate." 10.1073/pnas.2121663119

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Connecting entrepreneurs across global cities to Phoenix

February 7, 2022

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues around the world, the Phoenix entrepreneurial community’s tradition of providing support and expertise for growing businesses reached beyond Arizona.

Through the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute at Arizona State University, this community had the opportunity to serve the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) Fellowship Program, a flagship program for emerging entrepreneurs and business leaders from the Western Hemisphere, funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and implemented in partnership with International Research and Exchanges Board. A small group activity featuring Fellows from around Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada, working together with coaches and some members of the Edson E+I team in Phoenix in a workshop focused on community development challenges and technology-assisted solutions. Download Full Image

In supporting the YLAI program, the Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute leveraged its connections in the greater Phoenix entrepreneurial community to connect executives, community leaders and experienced entrepreneurs with fellows for coaching and workshops. This same community supports Edson E+I Institute programs such as Venture Devils in a similar fashion.

The in-person component of the fellowship operated virtually for the first time in 2021. It replaced an original in-person U.S. visit and enabled more than 200 entrepreneurs from Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada to learn business success techniques through the YLAI program.

Camila Cooper, a 2021 YLAI alumna from Colombia, runs the nonprofit Fruto Bendito, which trains caregivers and provides essential supplies so more young, low-income mothers have greater access to health care for their small children.

“The YLAI program helped me to understand all the dimensions that we could cover as a foundation,” Cooper said. “We were able to build our plans, programs and projects to make a comprehensive intervention, in addition to connecting with the network that exists in Latin America and in the Caribbean. (We did this) while learning about good practices.”

 Fellow Camila Cooper (bottom right), a 2021 YLAI fellow and founder of the nonprofit Fruto Bendito, based in Colombia, collaborates with coaches and peers during a live workshop.

This year’s virtual program was a huge benefit to Cooper, who had just given birth to a son and would have been unable to travel for an in-person fellowship.

Cooper also praised her coaches, many who serve in various coaching capacities with Edson E+I.

“The coaches were incredible, since the level of learning was very enriching and the virtual program was not an obstacle to being able to feel as if we were in the same space on equal terms,” she said.

Throughout the entire fellowship program, the YLAI fellows, all between the ages of 25 and 35, were able to further their skills in leadership and entrepreneurship to benefit their community projects, social ventures, nonprofits and businesses by interacting with coaches online.

The foundation of resources Edson E+I had made it easy to scale this experience by leveraging technology and creating a virtual environment, allowing the institute to serve the fellows where they are physically in their home countries, as well where they are in the various phases of their organizations, nonprofits and businesses. Fellows also had access to seed funding and production support to build their company collateral.

Fellows and coaches said the virtual program provided a thorough and rewarding experience.

Shawn Melville is a 2021 YLAI alumnus from Trinidad and Tobago. As managing director of Ipsum Technologies, he leads an organization that helps create opportunities for people with disabilities to thrive in the growing digital economy.

“Participating in the YLAI Fellowship Program has helped Ipsum Technologies to build awareness of the need for greater digital inclusion of persons with disabilities,” Melville said. "And it has provided us with support to build a prototype of our application and develop a go-to-market strategy.” 

Shawn Melville, a 2021 YLAI fellow and managing director of Ipsum Technologies, based in Trinidad and Tobago.

Melville said Ipsum is working on a web application called Blind Way Forward, which is a practical guide for people with visual impairment.

Melville said his hosts, mentor and coaches were all aligned with his organization’s goals and willing to help.

Coach Manny Lucero, founder and CEO of Phoenix-based Lucero Consulting Group, said he found the fellows “truly remarkable” people who showed a passion to succeed and persistence in overcoming barriers to small business success.

“These entrepreneurs have innovative businesses, operate as social enterprises and give back to the community, and took the time and initiative to invest in their education as small business owners,” Lucero said.

A virtual coaching session between coach Manny Lucero and fellow Evita Sanches.

Coach Angela Johnson of FABRIC, a Tempe-based fashion apparel entrepreneurship incubator, said each fellow was “eager to learn and expressed a lot of gratitude.”

Johnson said she found sharing her business model with the fellows rewarding.

“It’s an attempt to help them avoid some of the mistakes I made,” she said.

The fellows adjusted well to the virtual format, Johnson said.

“I did feel that the online experience added a level of convenience to both coaches and fellows,” Johnson said. “There are always some nuances that are better in person; however, I think the benefits of convenience outweigh that.”

Fellow Luis Pelayo shares his thoughts on LinkedIn on his support from the program and his coach, Angela Johnson.

Johnson said each fellow will provide value to their community in a meaningful way.

“They each bring artistry, opportunity, meaning and heart to their immediate area as well as to the global community, and fill a void in the marketplace with a niche product that can’t be met by big corporations,” she said.

ASU’s role in YLAI is multifaceted and includes units such as ASU Knowledge Enterprise’s International Development, the Thunderbird School for Global Management, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and Edson E+I. 

This summer, Edson E+I will serve as a YLAI cohort ambassador connecting 15 fellows to organizations and ASU units to provide them with an overview of the Phoenix entrepreneurial ecosystem for an in-person experience. If your organization or ASU unit is interested in hosting a fellow, please contact Edson E+I at