When it comes to keeping your heart healthy, you’d be wise to limit red meat, get the right amount of sleep, exerce regularly, and keep your stress levels under control. But one thing you might not have even considered is to be mindful of air pollution in the form of fine particulate matter.
Air pollution is typically thought of as something that impacts the health of your lungs, but a new study published in The Lancet finds a possible link between heart health and air pollution, too. Researchers studied more than 157,000 adults ages 35 to 70 years in high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries, tracking levels of PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter) in the air. What they found was those particles were tiny enough to go beyond the lungs and work their way into the bloodstream, putting people’s heart health at risk.
During the average follow-up period of 9 years, researchers recorded 9,152 cardiovascular disease events, both fatal and non-fatal, including 4,083 heart attacks and 4,139 strokes. “These results show, for the first time, that living in more polluted locations exposed to higher PM 2.5 levels over several years increases the risk for a variety of cardiovascular events and death,” says Robert Brook, MD, a cardiovascular medicine specialist at the Michigan Medicine Frankel Cardiovascular Center who has studied the effects of pollution on heart health for years. “This risk occurs at high and low levels of PM 2.5 exposure and among nearly all countries (high or low income nations) and populations of people.”
According to Dr. Brook, this study highlights that “PM 2.5 is a clear and present danger, and a worldwide threat to public health for all global citizens.” So much so that it showed for every 10 microgram per cubic meter increase in PM 2.5, there’s a 5 percent increase in all cardiovascular events. But unlike limiting your red meat intake or even using an air purifier, breathing clean outdoor air isn’t always easy as it’s something you don’t have much control over. Luckily, there are some precautions you can take in order to keep your heart healthy.
“People with, or at risk for, cardiovascular diseases should be mindful of the air quality in their region and follow the local/national Air Quality Index regulations for activity,” says Dr. Brook. “Higher risk people traveling to heavily-polluted regions should be aware of the risks posed by air pollution and base decisions of travel with realistic estimates of their own personal risks versus the need to travel.”
Another new study published in the journal Circulation found staying active can help, too. Researchers discovered those who exercise often have a lower risk of high blood pressure—even if they live in areas of high air pollution. That’s because “physical activity continued to have a protective effect, even when people were exposed to high pollution levels,” said study author Xiang Qian Lao, PhD, in a press release.
While you can’t control everything when it comes to taking care of your health, making some small changes—and being more mindful—could play a big role in keeping your heart pumping strong for years to come. Even when the air you breathe isn’t always on your side.