By Wayne Cascio
Since 2004, when the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign began, the arrival of February has always renewed my commitment as a cardiologist to educate my patients and the public about the steps they can take to prevent heart and blood vessel disease. Go Red has produced measurable gains in the public’s knowledge about heart disease among women and men. Yet, did you know that over 800,000 still die in the U.S. each year from heart disease?
Most of us now know that we can reduce our risk from heart disease by eating a healthy diet, remaining physically active, not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and taking aspirin when appropriate. Yet there is another risk factor that many may not have considered: air pollution. That brings in the Green Heart for February.
Exposure to air particle pollution affects heart and blood vessel health adversely and causes deaths. The good news is that falling air pollution levels over the past 30 years correlate with increased longevity. Still, exposure to air pollutants, particularly among those most vulnerable, continues to contribute to at least 40,000 deaths from heart disease in the U.S. each year. So, 5% or more of heart disease deaths are possibly related to air pollution exposure.
Now, as a researcher at EPA, I am involved in a different way to address heart disease than during my practice to treat patients. EPA researchers are studying the impacts of air pollution on our health with a focus on those with heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. These studies have and are advancing our understanding of the health risks of air pollutants and who is most vulnerable to them.
Research and public education are important in the fight against heart disease. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and their partners launched a national initiative called Million Hearts™ to decrease heart attacks and strokes by 1 million over the next five years. To support and complement this effort, EPA initiated the Green Heart campaign to increase awareness among public and health professionals and individuals that air pollution is a risk for those with heart disease.
By adopting a heart healthy lifestyle, managing high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, stopping smoking and using aspirin when appropriate, and checking daily air quality, a significant public health benefit can be achieved.
A very valuable tool for helping to monitor your daily risk to air pollution is EPA’s Air Quality Index. You can also learn more about environmental risk factors and steps to decrease exposure and risk in educational materials prepared by EPA.
I hope that you will share this red and green valentine message with a friend or loved one and help to save a life from heart attack.
About the author: Wayne Cascio, MD is the Director of the Environmental Public Health Division of NHEERL, 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 is a cardiologist and environmental health scientist studying the effects of air pollution on the heart and blood vessels.