By Wayne E. Cascio, MD
Each February during American Heart Month our attention is once again drawn to the importance of promoting heart health. Heart attacks and strokes are on the decline thanks to the dedicated efforts of many health care professionals and organizations and scientists on the frontlines of cardiovascular research and health education. Yet, while progress is being made, cardiovascular diseases still account for the largest number of deaths each year in the US (one death every 40 seconds) and impose an enormous emotional, physical and economic burden on individuals, families and our communities. This underscores the importance of continued vigilance in the fight against heart disease and stroke.
Most Americans by now can recite the major heart healthy lifestyle factors: regular physical activity, a healthy diet and weight, controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, and no smoking. Yet, too few know that exposure to air pollution is a risk factor for heart disease, even though scientific evidence is clear that air pollution contributes to heart disease.
Just last December cardiologists and health scientists on behalf of the European Society of Cardiology published a paper in the European Heart Journal adding their voices to a growing chorus of environmental health scientists and physicians calling for increased public awareness of the link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease.
EPA’s Healthy Heart initiative was created in 2013 to increase environmental health literacy among health care providers, patients with heart disease who are at highest risk from the ill effects of air pollution, and the general public. Heart patients and caregivers can access information about protecting their heart from air pollution on the Healthy Heart web page. The site includes links to local air quality forecasts on the airnow.gov web page.
Individuals are empowered to take action to protect their hearts from air pollution. They can adjust their daily activities to keep air pollution exposure to a minimum when outdoor levels are high. They can avoid exercise near a busy road and reduce activity level on high pollution days (for example, go for a walk instead of a jog.) Adding these steps to other healthy lifestyle activities can protect hearts and save lives.
And while much scientific progress has been made to uncover the heart-air pollution link, many questions remain that require more science. EPA and other scientists across our country and around the world are hard at work to learn more about why some people are so susceptible to polluted air and what sources may be contributing the most to heart attacks and strokes, among other questions. One such effort is the CATHGEN Air Pollution Study, being conducted by EPA in collaboration with the Duke University School of Medicine. This multi-year study and others under way are anticipated to fill big gaps in current scientific knowledge on the health impacts of air pollution.
About the Author: Cardiologist Wayne E. Cascio, MD is the Director of EPA’s Environmental Public Health Division, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Fellow of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Dr. Cascio’s research explores the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.