Elderly adults face an increased risk of heart and lung problems from air pollution exposure, even at low levels, according to the findings of new research.
In a study published this week in the journal Circulation, Harvard researchers warn low concentrations of fine particulate matter still increase the risk an older adult will suffer a stroke, heart attack or other serious heart and long conditions.
Researchers examined the relationship between long-term exposure to several types of air pollution, including particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and tropospheric ozone. They looked at hospital admissions for more than 63 million Medicare patients in the United States from 2000 to 2006, focusing on four cardiovascular and respiratory outcomes; including heart attack, ischemic stroke, atrial fibrillation and flutter, and pneumonia.
Long term exposure to PM 2.5 was linked to an increased risk of all heart and lung side effects, with the highest risk linked to strokes. The risk increased by 0.0091% for each 1 mg/m3 increase of air pollution. This increase translated to 2,536 cases of hospital admissions with ischemic stroke per year of exposure to PM 2.5 pollution.
PM 2.5 is a type of air pollution made up of small particles of soot, dust and dirt smaller than 2.5 micrometers; 70 times smaller than a single human hair. These particles are so small they can easily be inhaled into the lungs and lead to widespread health side effects and early death.
Nitrogen dioxide was also linked to an increase in the risk of hospital admission for stroke and atrial fibrillation. Exposure to tropospheric ozone was linked with an increase in the risk of admission for pneumonia.
A study published in 2019 linked long-term air pollution to increased risk of emphysema, a type of lung damage similar to smoking a pack of cigarettes daily for nearly 30 years.
Even at lower concentrations, all pollutants were associated with an increased risk for all four conditions: heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation, and pneumonia.
The findings indicate air pollution should be considered a risk for heart disease, lung disease and other health side effects, especially considering the mounting evidence pointing to the ill effects.
Research published last year concluded air pollution, even at low levels, would lead to higher rates of dementia. Even at short-term exposure air pollution increased the risk of health risks such as bloodstream infections and renal failure.
“Long-term exposure to air pollutants poses a significant risk to cardiovascular and respiratory health among the elderly population in the United States, with the greatest increase in the association per unit of exposure occurring at lower concentrations,” the researchers concluded.