Author: Richard R. Heuser, M.D., FACC, FACP, FESC, FSCAI
The connection between heart disease and air pollution is still in an early stage of research. However, scientific findings from the last twenty years strongly suggest that air pollution (such as vehicle emissions) can actually cause heart disease – not just exacerbate it.
What One Economics Professor Discovered
The connection between air pollution and heart disease was first investigated in 1989 by C. Arden Pope III, an economics professor at Brigham Young University. Pope had been tracking the relationship between a nearby steel mill’s emissions and hospitalizations in the surrounding area.
While Pope was initially interested in the effects of air pollution on the lungs and respiratory system, he couldn’t help but notice a striking positive correlation between air pollution and instances of cardiovascular disease in the area. Pope tells The New York Times, “The deeper you dive into the data, the more clearly you see the effect on cardiovascular disease.”
A Study With 5,000+ Patients Goes Deeper
Pope isn’t the only researcher with findings to present. Dr. Sara Adar, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan (also discussed in the Times article) has been tracking the relationship between heart disease and air pollution for more than 10 years in a study that follows 5,000 individuals in six states.
The study (known as “MESA Air”) has found that increased exposure to air pollution directly corresponds with narrowing of the blood vessels and hardening of arterial walls. It’s suspected that particles found in vehicle emissions could be the primary culprits. With a high surface area, these particles allow other toxic compounds to attach to them. Though these toxic particles are large on the molecular level, they are still fine enough to embed themselves into lung tissue and blood vessels, where they cause inflammation.
Like our genes, air pollution is another uncontrollable factor. But, as I tell my patients, this is just one more reason why it’s important to make lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of heart disease.
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