Learning How Animals Hibernate Could Help Humans Live Longer

Bears, squirrels and bats all have plenty to teach us

Bear eats fish
Eating fish isn't the only way humans can emulate bears for good health.
John Moore/Getty Images

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, hibernating bears can lose between 15% and 30% of their body weight as they lie dormant. As weight loss strategies go, that one’s hard to beat — though it’s also not terribly viable for a species that’s not prone to hibernation like, say, humans. But the Ozempic-like effect hibernation can have on bears isn’t the only intriguing element of that state — and some other qualities of hibernation might have a greater impact on keeping humans healthy.

The journal Science recently published a study looking at a particular facet of hibernation — namely, the fact that hibernating bears rarely develop blood clots even though they’re largely immobile. This is relevant for people, specifically those who are immobile for short periods of time and are thus at higher risk for venous thromboembolism, a type of blood clot that can pose a serious health risk. The scientists learned that humans who are chronically immobile do not share this risk — which suggests in turn that there might be a way to reduce the risk for humans immobilized in the short term.

Writing in The Washington Post, Dino Grandoni has a good look at some of the different ways scientists are researching hibernation in order to learn more about keeping humans healthier. The aforementioned Science paper comes up, but the scope of the article isn’t limited to bears and blood clots; researchers are also exploring how squirrels stay healthy when they’re dormant for long stretches of the winter. And in The Atlantic, Katherine J. Wu chronicled the ways in which scientists are researching bat hibernation for clues about longevity.

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As a recent Smithsonian Magazine article observed, bears are of particular interest to scientists because of their size. Can a bear secreted away in a cave for the winter help us live longer, healthier lives? It’s not as strange as it sounds.

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