What Dolphins Teach Humans About Aging | Science and Health

A military use that ended up giving way to scientific research. Dolphins created in a US Navy program are used for studies that may lead to health improvements animals as well as humans.

A report from The New York Times shows that the animals began to be trained for military purposes in 1959, during the Vietnam War, because of the animals’ abilities such as keen underwater vision and a powerful sonar, sound-tracking system.

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Today, they are still used for tasks such as detecting underwater mines, recovering sunken objects, and intercepting unknown vessels in US waters.

But even to keep the animals in good health, several studies began to be done to increase their longevity. Some dolphins there are already over 50 years old and in good health – a condition that ended up generating curiosity that led to more specific studies on animal aging.

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In addition to taking care of the animals’ health, the Navy team collects blood, urine and feces samples, which are stored in freezers for decades. Thus, it is possible to know their health status at various stages of their lives and understand their aging trends. The studied sea lion dolphins have yielded more than 12,000 scientific studies, the foundation says.

Discoveries about human aging

The NYT shows that the research, in addition to leading to discoveries about new treatments to increase the animals’ life expectancy, also led scientists to notice, over time, some similarities between the aging processes of dolphins and people. Thus bringing valuable lessons to medicine.

Scientists have discovered, for example, that dolphins suffer from conditions similar to those of humans, such as high cholesterol, anemia and chronic inflammation. And they noticed that certain foods in the animals’ diets, such as saturated fatty acids, were associated with samples with better health indicators. This allowed the preparation of nutritional supplements based on these compounds, which are commercially available for humans.

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Today, there are doctors like Jeffrey Schwimmer, a pediatric gastroenterologist, who are studying these fatty acids in order to better understand how they can benefit human health. “It was the dolphin work that put it on my radar,” he comments.

In another finding, the researchers found that dolphins can develop brain damage similar to that of Alzheimer’s patients. Now, they are working to determine whether dolphins also show similar cognitive symptoms. If the result is positive, it could explain some marine mammal addictions, experts say, and could make dolphins a useful model for studying neurodegenerative disease.

The US Navy is still working to sequence the genomes of dozens of dolphins, trying to find genetic markers associated with better and worse health indicators. The initial goal is to understand ways to improve animal health, but “if it’s possible to discover something that leads to improvements in human health, even better,” says Eric Jensen, one of the scientists leading the program.

There are, however, practices and studies criticized by fellow Navy researchers. Like research that makes dolphins leave their environment to go to laboratories, swallow large amounts of salt water, remove tissue for biopsies and expose them to stressful environments.

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