Air Pollution and Your Heart: The Surprising Link

We only have one heart, folks, so we need to take care of it! Heart disease is a big problem in this country, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that diseases of the heart are typically the leading causing of death here (https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm). In fact, one person dies every 36 seconds on average from heart disease.

You probably already know that for a healthy heart, you need to exercise regularly, avoid smoking, eat a healthy diet and limit how much alcohol you drink. Keeping your stress under control is important, too. But, surprisingly, there is another factor that can influence your heart health: air pollution.

As you go about your day, you inhale gallons of air. It’s mostly oxygen, nitrogen and small amounts of other gases. However, that same air also has particles from vehicles, factories and power plants, and these tiny pollutants can trigger strokes, heart attacks and irregular heart rhythms. This risk is increased for those who have or are at risk for heart disease.

One study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, (https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa1702747), explored a potential link between air pollution and heart disease. Using data from Medicare recipients who were 65 or older–about 60 million people–researchers explored the levels of air pollution in those recipients’ individual zip codes by gathering data from satellites and federal air monitoring stations. Once all this was compiled, they looked at the impact of low levels of air pollution on death rates.

The results from this study suggested that lowering air pollution by just a single microgram per cubic meter may save up to 12,000 lives annually. Although this study did not report on causes of death, heart disease is a leading cause of death in the U.S., and study author Dr. Jeffrey Drazen also noted that there is already a clear link between heart disease and air pollution. According to Dr. Drazen, particles from air pollution pass into the lungs and activate immune cells known as macrophages. These are the same cells that are involved in the creation of plaque that clogs arteries and interferes with the flow of blood, which can trigger a stoke or heart attack.

Although there’s no way to fully eliminate your exposure to air pollution, you can help keep it down by avoiding exercise near industrial areas, busy roads or outside. Biking or walking instead of driving a car can sometimes help drive pollution levels down overall, too!