Natural disaster and immunological aging in a nonhuman primate

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022 Feb 22;119(8):e2121663119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2121663119.


Weather-related disasters are increasing in frequency and severity, leaving survivors to cope with ensuing mental, financial, and physical hardships. This adversity can exacerbate existing morbidities, trigger new ones, and increase the risk of mortality-features that are also characteristic of advanced age-inviting the hypothesis that extreme weather events may accelerate aging. To test this idea, we examined the impact of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath on immune cell gene expression in large, age-matched, cross-sectional samples from free-ranging rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) living on an isolated island. A cross section of macaques was sampled 1 to 4 y before (n = 435) and 1 y after (n = 108) the hurricane. Hurricane Maria was significantly associated with differential expression of 4% of immune-cell-expressed genes, and these effects were correlated with age-associated alterations in gene expression. We further found that individuals exposed to the hurricane had a gene expression profile that was, on average, 1.96 y older than individuals that were not-roughly equivalent to an increase in 7 to 8 y of a human life. Living through an intense hurricane and its aftermath was associated with expression of key immune genes, dysregulated proteostasis networks, and greater expression of inflammatory immune cell-specific marker genes. Together, our findings illuminate potential mechanisms through which the adversity unleashed by extreme weather and potentially other natural disasters might become biologically embedded, accelerate age-related molecular immune phenotypes, and ultimately contribute to earlier onset of disease and death.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aging / immunology*
  • Animals
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Cyclonic Storms
  • Disasters
  • Macaca / immunology*
  • Natural Disasters / mortality
  • Risk Factors
  • Survivors / psychology*