Two new reports featured in The British Medical Journal point to air pollution as a potential threat to both mental and cardiovascular health. Specifically, higher exposure to fine particulate matter (from industrial sources such as automobile exhaust and power plant emissions) as well as gaseous emissions was linked to increased anxiety and stroke risk.
One report focused on data collected as part of a long-term study of more than 70,000 female nurses in the United States. From the information gathered, researchers were able to determine that the women who lived closer to major roads—and therefore higher levels of pollution—were more likely to experience increased anxiety symptoms such as fearfulness, worrying, and withdrawal. Additionally, symptoms were found to be strongest when exposure was more recent.
So, why the increased risk? Experts believe part of the reason may be because air pollution triggers an inflammation response in the body, which in turn causes the release of certain chemicals linked to psychological distress as well as changes in mood and behavior.
A second report focused on more than 100 different studies conducted worldwide. The goal was to determine whether or not a relationship exists between short-term air pollution and a higher number of stroke-related hospitalizations and fatalities. Indeed, populations exposed to higher levels of both fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants (including carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide) saw a significant rise in stroke rates—which rose exponentially as exposure levels increased.
The takeaway, say researchers involved in analyzing the data, is that we need to take steps to reduce exposure to air pollution and improve overall air quality, especially in highly populated areas where pollutants pose a serious risk to human health.
The noise, the traffic, the constant hustle and bustle—if you’ve ever lived in a big city, you know how stressful it can be. In fact, studies have shown that city dwellers are typically more stressed out than their rural counterparts, causing physical changes in the brain that can lead to significant mental health damage as well as heart problems over time. On a positive note, Penn State University researchers believe providing “green spaces” may be part of the solution.
A green space is created when an area of undeveloped urban land (such as an empty lot) is cleared and beautified with trees, shrubs, flowers, and other greenery to provide a communal space for people to enjoy. In addition to the environmental benefits—including improved air and water quality, cooler temperatures, and reduced soil erosion—scientists are finding several human health benefits associated with green spaces, particularly when it comes to heart health.
The Penn State scientists recently conducted a study in which a group of people (wearing heart rate monitors equipped with GPS trackers) were asked to walk through their neighborhood before and after it had been renovated to include urban green spaces, and they found that simply strolling through the beautified areas had a positive impact on overall heart rate. Specifically, researchers saw a net heartbeat drop of approximately 15 beats per minute (bpm).
Why the change of heart, so to speak? Possibly because the restored areas made residents feel safer, but more likely because the green spaces had an overall calming effect—an effect seen in previous studies that have linked spending time in nature with reduced stress and improved mood. According to senior author Dr. Charles Branas in a recent press release, “This research on greening urban lots provides an important scientific impetus for urban planners and city officials to take relatively low-cost steps toward improving health for their residents.”