Protecting Senior Loved Ones From Air Pollution
Air pollution raises the risk of many age-related health conditions.
Environmental scientists say the air we breathe is "polluted" when it contains gases, solids or liquids that can harm our health. Most dangerous pollutants come from manmade sources. Carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, sulfur oxides and ozone are created in factories, in power plants and during industrial processes, and in the exhaust from automobiles.
Mother Nature also plays a part. Wildfires, volcanoes and even fine particles from soil erosion can make the air unhealthy. And certain weather conditions can trap pollutants in an area, allowing unsafe levels to build up.
Air pollution affects our health in many ways. It can damage …
The lungs. Fine solid or liquid particles in the air irritate and damage the lungs. When inhaled, these particles can enter the bloodstream or remain in the lungs for a long time. People who live in an area with a high level of pollutants are more likely to be hospitalized with pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, asthma or emphysema.
The heart. In May 2016, the Endocrine Society reported, "Exposure to air pollution can worsen blood sugar levels, cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease, particularly in people with diabetes." In the same month, the American Heart Association (AHA) noted a strong link between air pollution and high blood pressure. They reported, "The mechanism by which air pollution could contribute to the development of high blood pressure includes inflammation and oxidative stress, which may lead to changes in the arteries.”
The brain. The AHA warns that air pollution also raises the risk of brain damage from a stroke. And the Gerontological Society of America reports that "fine air particulate matter—composed of particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller, thought to be sufficiently small that if inhaled they can deposit deep in the lung and possibly the brain—may be an important environmental risk factor for reduced cognitive function." Studies show people living in areas with high levels of pollutants score lower on tests of thinking and memory.
A study in the Journal of Thoracic Disease reported that close to 4 million premature deaths each year are connected with air pollution. It can impact the health in people of every age. But seniors are at highest risk. Pollution leads to increased hospitalizations, as well as increased risk of many health conditions to which seniors are susceptible.
To protect older loved ones—and yourself—the first step is to learn the risk of dangerous pollution in your area. Sometimes it's obvious that the air quality is poor—we might see or smell smoke or smog. But often, the particulate matter that makes up air pollution is so small that we don't notice it. If a loved one is at high risk for the effects of air pollution, regularly check the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index (AQI) forecast at www.airnow.gov.
Then take steps to protect loved ones …
Outdoors. The AHA says, "People should limit their exposure on days with higher air pollution levels. Especially for those with high blood pressure, even very short-term exposure can aggravate their condition." Your loved one's healthcare provider might recommend the use of a filtered mask if conditions are especially dangerous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that seniors limit outdoor activity on poor air quality days.
Indoors. If there's dangerous pollution outside, coming inside will protect us, right? Maybe, say experts—but our homes and other indoor environments also can contain dangerous pollutants. The EPA points out that older adults spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, which can put them at risk of illness related to tobacco smoke, animal dander, mold, dust and pesticides. Building materials such as pressed wood products may contain hazardous substances. And the byproducts of heating with oil, gas, kerosene or coal also may be bad for the lungs. The EPA offers a virtual online tour to help us correct hazards to improve air quality in our homes.
In the car. Experts tell us that if we're zipping down the highway, the air in our car usually is reasonably clean. But sitting in traffic jams—something most Americans do regularly—allows unhealthy air to accumulate inside the car. Experts from the University of Surrey in the U.K. recommend that while we're in traffic, we should close the car windows and switch off the fan, or set the fan on recirculate mode, rather than suck in dirty air from all those cars idling around us. Even sitting at a traffic light can increase the level of pollution.
We can all do our part to reduce pollution. The EPA asks that Americans walk or take public transit whenever possible, set air conditioners at a higher temperature, and avoid using gasoline-powered equipment (such as lawn mowers or leaf blowers) on days when the air quality is rated as unhealthy.
University of Washington researcher Lianne Sheppard, who is leading a project to better pinpoint the effect of air pollution on Alzheimer's risk, points out that air pollution is a controllable health threat—but we will all have to work together to do something about it. Sheppard hopes that raising awareness of the brain-damaging effect of pollution will provide new incentive. Said Sheppard, "We have control, collectively as a society, over how much pollution is acceptable. And if we change the regulations according to scientific research, we can affect the cognitive health of everybody who breathes the air."