You might not think of air pollution as an important risk factor for heart disease, but dirty air does more than make you cough and wheeze.
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The American Heart Association has warned about the dangers of air pollution for many years. Many epidemiological studies (that look at disease patterns) link long-term exposure to air pollution to heart disease.
Now, new studies link atrial fibrillation and blood clots in the lungs with the small particulate matter in air pollution. That raises new concerns about all the ways pollution affects your health.
Small particulates and long-term risk
Air pollution can contain large or small particles of dirt or contaminants. Small particulate matter (defined as particles that have a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers) is especially dangerous. It gets past all of your body’s natural barriers and into your lungs.
Many epidemiological studies (that analyze patterns in disease incidence) say that long-term exposure to small particulate air pollution increases the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease or stroke.
Study on short-term pollution dangers
A recent study based in London focused on short-term effects of air pollution, scanning data from emergency room admissions. Researchers didn’t find links to STEMI heart attacks (the most serious type of heart attack). However, they did find correlations between small-particulate pollution and atrial fibrillation (erratic and extremely fast heartbeat). They also found links to pulmonary embolism, a potentially deadly condition that involves blog clots in the lungs.
The study further showed an association between exposure to a specific element in smog (nitrogen dioxide) and cardiac disease-related hospital admissions.
Lessons still being learned
Benico Barzilai, MD, Head of the Section of Clinical Cardiology in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic, did not participate in the study but he reviewed it. He says the correlation between air pollution and heart-related outcomes is not a simple one and more study is needed. “Although this article did not find correlation with STEMI and stroke, it did find a correlation with air pollution and atrial fibrillation or irregular heartbeat, and pulmonary embolism.”
Dr. Barzilai says more studies will help answer many questions about exactly how air pollution affects heart health. “We need more studies to clearly understand this,” he says.
Meanwhile, he adds, all the existing data confirms, “that the lower the particulate levels in the air, the better for our health. And efforts to lower air pollution or to limit exposure to air pollution are beneficial.”
Limiting your risk
When air pollution reaches unhealthy levels, anyone at risk — particularly patients with heart problems — should avoid outdoor activities.
You can help protect yourself from heart disease by learning about unexpected risk factors. Make sure to take care of your teeth and get enough sleep, for example.
Meanwhile, it’s important to continue being vigilant about well-studied risk factors such as diet and blood pressure. There is a lot you can do to reduce your risks.