So much of what we hear in health news today involves how what we eat or how much we move affects the way we live. For example, if we overeat sugar or unhealthy foods and don’t get enough exercise, we can find ourselves at increased risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These can affect our quality of life or even shorten our lifespan.
As a comparative physiologist, I compare examples of animals and humans, how their diets affect their health and the factors that drive the development of cardiovascular disease with poor nutrition and diabetes.
I find birds to be the most interesting natural animal model of living successfully with high blood sugar. These amazing animals have blood sugar levels that are 1.5–2 times higher than the amount measured in mammals of similar body size, yet they display none of the typical characteristics that we associate with diabetes. This is because living with high blood sugar is just a normal part of their physiology. Another surprising fact: Unlike endurance athletes, who rely on sugar stores to power exercise, birds use fat to power flight. This is contrary to what people often assume.
Birds also defy the “rate of living theory of aging.” This theory suggests that animals with higher metabolisms (such as mice) do not live as long as those with low metabolisms (such as sloths). But birds go against this theory because they have very high metabolisms and are known to live relatively long lives.
We’ve still got a lot to learn about human health and disease from our fine, feathered friends and many other animals, too! To learn more about comparative physiology, check out the APS Dr. Dolittle blog.
Karen Sweazea, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Nutrition & Health Promotion and the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.