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Is Air Pollution A Risk Factor For Heart Disease?

Being a mixture of solid particles and gases in the air, air pollution exists naturally or comes from man-made substances. These include fine particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels, noxious gases (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, chemical vapors, etc.) from factories, dust, ground-level ozone (a reactive form of oxygen and a primary component of urban smog) and tobacco smoke.

Inhaling air pollutants that are poisonous, as reported by researchers for the past 30 years, can pose many health problems including respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, adverse pregnancy outcomes and even death. A scientific statement by the American Heart Association (AHA), which was released in 2004 and updated in 2010, warns public the risk of air pollution and recommends that people talk to their doctor about avoiding exposure to air pollution specific to their area.

Globally, tens of thousands of deaths caused by air pollution, with young children and seniors with medical conditions at the highest risk. But a recent study that was published online October 25, 2016 in the AHA journal ‘Circulation Research’ suggested that healthy people in their twenties could also be harmed by the tiny particles produced by burning fossil fuels.

The study involved 72 young and healthy adults in Provo, Utah who were nonsmokers without exposure to second-hand smoke at home, work or school. Their average age was 23, most were white and more than half were male. These participants were divided into 3 groups of 24 persons. During the winters of 2013, 2014 and 2015, participants provided blood samples for researchers to test for markers of cardiovascular disease. Due to the unique weather and geographical features of Provo, researchers could evaluate these informative blood markers with various levels of air pollution.

Air pollution increases heart attack and stroke risk both in the short term and the long term. The fine particles known as PM2.5 are particularly dangerous though the reasons behind this has not been fully understood. By analyzing PM2.5, the researchers found that as air pollution rose, there is significant increases in: small, micro-particles indicating cell injury and death, levels of proteins that inhibit blood vessel growth, and proteins that signify blood-vessel inflammation.

Living in a polluted environment, as suggested by the new findings, could promote the development of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke more pervasively and at an earlier stage than previously thought. Furthermore, increased levels of air pollution are of concern to all human being, not just the sick or the elderly.

Earlier, the MESA Air study involving more than 6,000 people in 6 American states reported that exposure to air pollution can lead to atherosclerosis, a condition that can cause heart attack. The researchers calculated each participant’s exposure to ambient fine particulate matter that is less than 2.5 microns in diameter and too small to be seen by the naked eye, and measured exposure to nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide, and black carbon or soot. Thousands of air pollution measurements were collected in the study participants’ communities and at their homes. Between the years 2000 and 2012, participants visited study clinics several times to undergo CT scanning to determine the amount of calcium deposits in their heart arteries.

Results of the study, which was published May 24, 2016 online in ‘The Lancet’, showed that long-term exposure to air pollution, even at levels below regulatory standards, can quickly accelerates the progression of atherosclerosis for people who live in areas with more outdoor pollution than those living in less polluted areas.

Obviously, the study provided important new information on how pollution affects the main biological process that leads to heart disease, and more importantly supports worldwide efforts to lower exposure to ambient air pollutants.

While it may be impossible to avoid all air pollutants, one may reduce exposure by following some useful tips, for instance, exercise early in the day when ozone levels are low, and check area’s air quality index before making outdoor plans. For people living in a city with high air pollution rates, they should visit the doctor for regular checkup, especially for those who have asthma or any other pre-existing health issues.




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