Can Leaving Our Cars At Home Stop Heart Attacks?

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Don't breathe in car exhaustAir pollution is going to continue to be a huge problem in terms of our health. Medical experts routinely chart the ill effects of the various chemicals we live with every day. These illnesses include a broad range of health problems. Asthma is the most obvious but lung cancer, COPD, and diabetes are on the list as well.

It may be no coincidence at all that hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes occur with alarming frequency in seniors. Air pollution can play a big role in the disproportionately high number of illnesses that plague those over the age of 65.

Chemicals in vehicle exhaust are particularly suspect when it comes to harmful health effects. Car exhaust has been shown to adversely affect lung function. It can trigger allergic reactions and cause the airways to constrict.

What many people don’t realize is that car exhaust can be equally bad for the heart. Studies have shown that hospital admissions for heart failure, myocardial infarction, and arrhythmia go up when there is a rise in air pollution levels. Those living near heavy traffic have an increased risk for having a heart attack too.

Now, a European research team has discovered that the chemicals in car exhaust could specifically cause thickening of the artery walls. How did the researchers figure this out? They conducted ultrasounds on 1,483 people. These people all had one thing in common: they lived near a highway in the Los Angeles area. The researchers used the ultrasounds to measure the thickness of the carotid artery wall every six months for three years. They then matched these measurements to air particulate levels in the participants’ homes.

The researchers found that for those living closest to a highway, artery wall thickness increased at twice the average rate. In other words, living within 100 meters of a highway could increase artery wall thickness by five and a half micrometers every year. This increased rate of thickness could significantly accelerate the amount of time it takes to develop atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis, of course, leads directly to heart attack and stroke.

Here’s another study that found more ill effects for air pollution. Researchers from the University of California Berkeley assessed the association between three types of air pollutants—fine particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide—and the risk of mortality. They found that exposure to all three was positively associated with heart disease mortality. There was also strong evidence that a chemical directly associated with car exhaust—nitrogen dioxide—was associated with mortality from all causes.

This makes it all the more important to reduce the amount of air pollution caused by vehicle emissions. All of us have to continue to lobby for better public transit. Other forms of transportation such as biking and walking can contribute to cleaner air for everyone in dense urban areas. The more we can leave our cars at home, the healthier our lungs and heart will likely be.

Source(s) for Today’s Article:
Künzli, N., et al., “Ambient Air Pollution and the Progression of Atherosclerosis in Adults,” PLoS ONE; 5(2): e9096.
Sanders, R., “Auto exhaust linked to thickening of arteries, possible increased risk of heart attack,” UC Berkeley News Center web site, February 8, 2010;, last accessed August 14, 2013.
Burnett, R.T., et al., “Spatial Analysis of Air Pollution and Mortality in California,” Am J Respir Crit Care Med. June 27, 2013.