Some of us are grandmothers. Many of us have grandmothers whose well-being is of utmost importance to us. Most of us know that diet, exercise, and social engagement are the keys to healthy aging, and we try to keep that awareness front and center in our own lives and the lives of the older moms and grandmas we love.
Well, it turns out that clean air is critical to the health of our beloved “elders” as well. A new study by Columbia University reports that air pollution may be particularly dangerous for older postmenopausal women because it increases their chances of getting osteoporosis. A threatening condition characterized by lowered bone density that can lead to hip fractures and cracked ribs, osteoporosis is the most common reason the elderly break a bone. About two million fractures related to osteoporosis occur in the US each year, at a cost of an estimated $20 billion.
The study found that the nitrous oxides in air pollution can weaken the lumbar spine (aka lower backbone) because they undermine bone mineral density, a condition that is notoriously hard to reverse. Nitrous oxides are emitted by gasoline-powered cars and trucks and from oil- and coal-fired power plants and manufacturing facilities. They do twice as much damage to older women than should occur during normal aging.
“For the first time, we have evidence that nitrogen oxides, in particular, are a major contributor to bone damage and that the lumbar spine is one of the most susceptible sites of this damage,” says Diddier Prada, MD, PhD, associate research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.
Prada and her colleagues analyzed bone density data collected through the Women’s Health Initiative study, an ethnically diverse group of 161,808 postmenopausal women. The data measured bone mineral density for the whole body as well as the total hip, the femoral neck bone of the hip, and the lumbar spine, over a six-year period. Researchers found that poor air quality can exacerbate bone loss regardless of someone’s socioeconomic status or other demographic factors.
Previous studies documented high rates of hospital admissions for bone fractures in communities experiencing more polluted air, meaning the air contained toxic particulates sized around PM2.5, which is less than the width of a human hair. While risk of bone fracture admissions was greatest in low-income communities, research also found that even a small increase in airborne particulate matter would lead to an increase in bone fractures in older adults, no matter where they lived.
Though bone fractures can happen after any fall, even a simple hug could break the bone of someone suffering from osteoporosis. Once a break happens, a person’s prognosis can be bleak. According to Columbia, “In the year after an older adult has a bone fracture, risk for death increases by as much as 20 percent… Only 40 percent of those who had fractures regain their independence.”
Doctors generally recommend that women get more calcium and do more weight-bearing exercise to help strengthen bones. But the Columbia researchers found that reductions to air pollution exposure, particularly nitrogen oxides, “will reduce bone damage in postmenopausal women, prevent bone fractures, and reduce the health cost burden associated with osteoporosis among postmenopausal women.”
To that end, here’s how you can lessen air pollution and your—and your grandma’s—exposure to it:
- Ask your elected officials to support stronger clean air regulations. Here’s what Moms Clean Air Force is doing to strengthen the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and reduce particle pollution.
- Do what you can in your community to eliminate local sources of air pollution. Switching to cleaner renewable energy like solar and wind. Use more mass transit and drive less. Drive fuel-efficient vehicles, especially plug-in hybrids and EVs powered by electricity rather than gasoline. Switch from gas to electric appliances.
- Wear a mask outdoors, ideally one that traps particles sized around PM2.5. This is especially important on high pollution days. You can keep track of your air quality here. Limit time outdoors when air quality is particularly bad.
- Install an indoor air filter.
“Decades of careful research have documented the health risks of air pollution, from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, to cancer, and impaired cognition, and now osteoporosis,” says Columbia’s Andrea Baccarelli, Md, PhD. “Among the many benefits of clean air, our research suggests, are improved bone health and a way to prevent bone fractures.”