Having a happy heart is affected by more than Cupid’s bow. The air we breathe plays a much bigger role in how our heart feels than a love-tinged arrow. And that may not be good.
Why? Because so many of us live in cities where the air is polluted. As much as air pollution damages our lungs, it may have an even worse effect on our hearts.
Let’s start with 3 important facts about heart disease:
- It’s the leading cause of death in the U.S.
- 40% of all female deaths in America are caused by cardiovascular “events” like heart attacks and stroke.
- Almost one out of every two women in the U.S. die from heart disease (compared to one of every 25 who die from breast cancer). That amounts to almost 500,000 deaths each year and, interestingly, 60,000 more than men.
How does air pollution figure into the equation?
Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, natural gas and even wood releases toxic particles into the air. When massed together, these particles create soot and smog. Individually, they are so tiny it would take 30 to 40 of them to equal the diameter of a human hair. It’s that small size that makes them so dangerous, because they can be so easily inhaled. Not only do they penetrate deep into the lungs, but some scientists believe that the soot particles are accelerating atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which is the major precursor of heart disease.
A study conducted by scientists at the University of Washington (UW) found that women living in areas with higher levels of air pollution have a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and subsequently dying. The study, one of the largest of its kind, involved more than 65,000 women age 50 to 79, living in 36 cities across the United States.
The women studied had never had a heart attack, stroke, or coronary bypass surgery. No matter. Those living in areas where outdoor air pollution levels were elevated had a much higher risk of developing heart disease than those living where the air was cleaner.
“Soot particles, which are typically created by fossil-fuel combustion in vehicles and power plants, can contain a complex mix of chemicals,” explained Dr. Joel Kaufman, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, epidemiology, and medicine at UW and leader of the study. “The tiny particles — and the pollutant gases that travel along with them — cause harmful effects once they are breathed in.”
“This could be a cellular and biochemical process that starts in the lung and then proceeds from there into the cardiovascular system,” Kaufman explained. “Or it could be that these very small particles actually enter the blood stream through vessels in the lung, and then begin affecting blood vessels throughout the body.”
Another study, reported in the Journal of American Medicine, found that in Boston, on days when air pollution went up, so did the risk of stroke. The odds increased by more than 30 percent even on days classified by the federal air quality index as “moderate” pollution days.
Lest you think that people need long-term exposure to polluted air to develop related heart disease, scientists at the University Paris Descartes in France researched the link between short-term exposure to air pollution and cardiovascular disease. Their findings? That a variety of common pollutants emitted from burning fossil fuels, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, significantly raised a person’s immediate risk of having a heart attack.
Inhaling pollutants may do damage in a number of ways, the researchers noted. They may cause inflammation linked to heart disease. They may also increase the heart rate, and thicken the blood, which can cause blood clots and accelerate atherosclerosis.
Babies Are At Risk, Too
It’s not just adults whose hearts may be threatened by air pollution. Congenital heart defects in children might also be associated with their mothers’ exposure to dirty air.
Congenital heart defects occur when the heart or blood vessels near the heart don’t develop normally before birth, reported EcoWatch.
Research in Canada suggests that “some chemical emissions – particularly, industrial air emissions – may be linked to heart abnormalities that develop while the heart is forming in the womb,” said lead researcher Deliwe P. Ngwezi, M.D.
What Can We Do to Protect Our Hearts? Reduce Air Pollution.
Preventing the heart disease associated with air pollution “requires reducing the pollution at the source,” said Dr. Kaufman
There are three ways to protect our hearts:
Clean up emissions at existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. Moms Clean Air Force is working with many other local and national organizations to strengthen regulations that would reduce air pollution
Switch to renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind power. Rather than build new coal-fired plants, Moms Clean Air Force advocates a more rapid transition to clean burning renewable fuels.
Use energy far more efficiently. Many new technologies now make it possible to use less fuel to achieve the same outcome. You can find several easy ways you can save energy over at the Big Green Purse.
Moms Clean Air Force is at the forefront of local and national efforts to protect women’s hearts by advocating for clean air. PLEASE READ OUR NEW HEART HEALTH RESOURCE!