A Newfound Link Between Cancer and Aging?
A new study in 2022 reveals a thought-provoking relationship between how long animals live and how quickly their genetic codes mutate.
Cancer is a product of time and mutations, and so researchers investigated its onset and impact within 16 unique mammals. A new perspective on DNA mutation broadens our understanding of aging and cancer development—and how we might be able to control it.
Mutations, Aging, and Cancer: A Primer
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. It is not a pathogen that infects the body, but a normal body process gone wrong.
Cells divide and multiply in our bodies all the time. Sometimes, during DNA replication, tiny mistakes (called mutations) appear randomly within the genetic code. Our bodies have mechanisms to correct these errors, and for much of our youth we remain strong and healthy as a result of these corrective measures.
However, these protections weaken as we age. Developing cancer becomes more likely as mutations slip past our defenses and continue to multiply. The longer we live, the more mutations we carry, and the likelihood of them manifesting into cancer increases.
A Biological Conundrum
Since mutations can occur randomly, biologists expect larger lifeforms (those with more cells) to have greater chances of developing cancer than smaller lifeforms.
Strangely, no association exists.
It is one of biology’s biggest mysteries as to why massive creatures like whales or elephants rarely seem to experience cancer. This is called Peto’s Paradox. Even stranger: some smaller creatures, like the naked mole rat, are completely resistant to cancer.
This phenomenon motivates researchers to look into the genetics of naked mole rats and whales. And while we’ve discovered that special genetic bonuses (like extra tumor-suppressing genes) benefit these creatures, a pattern for cancer rates across all other species is still poorly understood.
Cancer May Be Closely Associated with Lifespan
Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute report the first study to look at how mutation rates compare with animal lifespans.
Mutation rates are simply the speed at which species beget mutations. Mammals with shorter lifespans have average mutation rates that are very fast. A mouse undergoes nearly 800 mutations in each of its four short years on Earth. Mammals with longer lifespans have average mutation rates that are much slower. In humans (average lifespan of roughly 84 years), it comes to fewer than 50 mutations per year.
The study also compares the number of mutations at time of death with other traits, like body mass and lifespan. For example, a giraffe has roughly 40,000 times more cells than a mouse. Or a human lives 90 times longer than a mouse. What surprised researchers was that the number of mutations at time of death differed only by a factor of three.
Such small differentiation suggests there may be a total number of mutations a species can collect before it dies. Since the mammals reached this number at different speeds, finding ways to control the rate of mutations may help stall cancer development, set back aging, and prolong life.
The Future of Cancer Research
The findings in this study ignite new questions for understanding cancer.
Confirming that mutation rate and lifespan are strongly correlated needs comparison to lifeforms beyond mammals, like fishes, birds, and even plants.
It will also be necessary to understand what factors control mutation rates. The answer to this likely lies within the complexities of DNA. Geneticists and oncologists are continuing to investigate genetic curiosities like tumor-suppressing genes and how they might impact mutation rates.
Aging is likely to be a confluence of many issues, like epigenetic changes or telomere shortening, but if mutations are involved then there may be hopes of slowing genetic damage—or even reversing it.
While just a first step, linking mutation rates to lifespan is a reframing of our understanding of cancer development, and it may open doors to new strategies and therapies for treating cancer or taming the number of health-related concerns that come with aging.
The Frequency of Billion-Dollar Disasters in the U.S.
The Maui fire is the latest of many disasters in the U.S. And data shows that frequency of costly weather disasters has increased.
Frequency of Billion-Dollar Disasters in the U.S.
Wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui have had devastating effects on people, towns, and nature, and the final cost is nowhere near tallied. They are the latest of many climate disasters in the U.S.—and data shows that their frequency has been increasing.
These graphics from Planet Anomaly use tracking data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to show the average number of days between billion-dollar weather disasters in the U.S. from 1980 to 2022.
NOAA’s database examines billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in America. Total associated damages and costs for each event are adjusted for inflation using the 2023 Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Disasters are categorized as one of seven different types:
- Drought: Prolonged dry spells resulting in water shortages and reduced soil moisture.
- Flooding: Overflow of water inundating land usually due to intense rainfall or melting snow.
- Tropical Cyclone: Intense rotating storm systems known as hurricanes.
- Severe Storm: Includes windstorms and tornadoes, hail, lightning, and heavy precipitation.
- Winter Storm: Heavy snow, freezing rain, and icy conditions impacting transportation and infrastructure.
- Wildfire: Uncontrolled fires consuming vast areas of forests and vegetation.
- Freezes: Sub-zero temperatures damaging crops and infrastructure, such as pipes or energy lines.
The average days between billion-dollar disasters are calculated from the start dates of adjacent events within a single year.
Days Between Billion-Dollar Disasters in the U.S. (1980‒2022)
Between 1980 and 2022, there were 155 total disasters in the U.S. that cost more than a billion dollars in damages when adjusted for inflation.
And when looking at the average number of days between these billion-dollar events within each year, we can see the decades becoming more and more costly:
|Year||Avg. Days Between Disasters|
Back in the early 1980s, the average interval between these major disasters (within each year) was 75 days. Even more starkly, 1987 had no climate disasters that topped $1 billion in damages, while 1988 only had one.
Fast forward to 2022, and that average window has drastically reduced to a mere 20 days between billion-dollar disasters in the United States.
Breaking Down Billion-Dollar Disasters by Type
Of the 155 disasters tracked through 2022, the majority have been in the form of severe storms including tornadoes, windstorms, and thunderstorms.
The worst severe storms include an outbreak of tornadoes in April 2011 across many central and southern states, with an estimated 343 tornadoes causing a total of $14 billion in CPI-adjusted damages. In August 2020, a powerful derecho—a widespread and intense windstorm characterized by straight-line winds—devastated millions of acres of crops across the Midwest and caused $13 billion in adjusted damages.
But the most expensive disasters so far have been hurricanes. Eight hurricanes top the inflation-adjusted damages charts, with Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented devastation in 2005 leading with a staggering $194 billion.
Will the U.S. be prepared for more costly disasters going forward? And will climate change continue to accelerate the pace of weather disasters in the U.S. even more?
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