Air Pollution’s Surprising Heart Risks and What You Can Do to Lower Them
The health threats of air pollution have been getting a lot of attention lately, and the news is both surprising and worrisome. A rash of new studies suggests that breathing in bad air isn’t just associated with respiratory ills like asthma or emphysema, but also with several cancers, reproductive issues, dementia, and especially, heart disease. In fact, research suggests that the cardiovascular health consequences of air pollution equal if not exceed those due to pulmonary diseases.
Pollution comes from a variety of sources, including vehicle exhaust, factories, power generation and wood fires. Researchers are particularly worried about the smallest particulate matter, that measuring 2.5 microns or less (30 times smaller than a human hair), which is often related to fuel combustion. These particles inflame the lungs and blood vessels around the heart.
Older women who live in cities with high levels of so-called PM 2.5 pollution face a significantly greater risk of dying from heart disease, according to research the University of Washington in Seattle. But exposure to fine particular matter is a threat even to young, nonsmoking individuals, according to a new study from Brigham Young University in Utah. When levels of PM 2.5 were high, blood samples showed signs of inflammation and blood vessel damage linked to heart attacks and strokes.
Avoiding bad air is not always possible, of course. But there are several strategies to minimize the risks associated with air pollution. To start with, watch for air quality alerts. The EPA’s air quality index (AQI) is calculated based on levels of five major pollutants. When the AQI is high, it’s wise to spend less time outside.
Exercise mitigates air pollution’s effects by boosting the health of blood vessels and allowing blood to flow easily to the heart and lungs. Surprisingly, data show the benefits of physical activity outweigh the risks of bad air during outdoor exercise. On very smoggy days, however, it’s prudent to run, walk, or cycle away from heavily trafficked roads, where concentrations of pollutants are higher, or to take your workout indoors. In the summer, exercise before 10 a.m., when ozone levels are typically lower. (Ozone levels rise during the day because sunlight worsens ozone pollution.)
There’s some evidence that the damaging effects of air pollution can be reduced by eating a diet rich in fish and antioxidants. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acid supplements protected the heart likely by quelling inflammation.
If you live or work in an area that has particularly polluted air, consider inflammation testing, which can alert you to blood vessel damage you may have incurred and help you and your doctor chart a path to better health. Also, OmegaCheck™ testing is available through Cleveland HeartLab to help determine if you are getting enough omega-3 intake from your diet and/or supplements.
The American Lung Association has found that four in 10 U.S. residents live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, so the threat is real. But sound health habits, awareness and common sense can help you moderate the risk, keeping your heart, along with the rest of your body, as healthy as possible.