Pollution and heart health: how to stay healthy

People living in London were recently subjected to the worst air pollution levels in the city since 2011, with some areas reaching 10 out of 10 on the air pollution index.

And while such high levels of pollution are bad news for anyone wanting to get out and about, they’re particularly bad news for health – especially if you have an existing medical condition.

A report by the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health claims 40,000 or so deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution every year here in the UK. Pollution, say the experts, has been linked to cancer, asthma, diabetes, obesity and changes linked to dementia, as well as stroke and heart disease.

Indeed, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), there’s evidence to suggest that air pollution can make existing heart conditions worse, as well as cause heart attacks and strokes among vulnerable people.

“Studies have shown that increasing concentrations of air pollutants alters heart rate variability – a marker of heart health,” says Professor Charles Knight, consultant cardiologist at private hospital group BMI Healthcare.

“Short-term exposure to air pollution may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in susceptible people with pre-existing heart conditions. In the longer term, exposure may promote atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries – and may raise blood pressure.

“So those people with heart disease should try and limit their exposure to pollution as much as is practical. Avoid outdoor exercise when pollution levels are high and avoid busy roads if possible.”

Heart health tips

Professor Knight also has the following tips for keeping your heart healthy when pollution levels rise:

1. Don’t bother with face masks. There’s little hard evidence that face masks help reduce the chance of heart problems from pollution. Certainly soft surgical masks do not fit snugly enough and are not designed to filter small particles.

2. Look at your lifestyle. Lifestyle modification can reduce any cardiac problem. Most importantly, take regular exercise. This includes aerobic exercise a few times a week to put your heart at a 70-85 percent of its maximum. It’s easy to find an online calculator to assess what your maximum percent is if you’re not sure. The risk of living alongside and breathing in polluted air will be far reduced with a corresponding healthy diet and lifestyle.

3. Learn about your food. Start asking questions, learn about nutrition, or at least read the back of food labels. The best diet is Mediterranean with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. A good diet will help to keep your heart strong and healthy.

4. Don’t smoke. The most important avoidable type of air pollution is self-administered cigarette smoke. It’s important to recognise that the effects of air pollution are less significant than other established risks for heart disease, and the most important of these is cigarette smoking.

5. Make sure your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar are measured and well controlled. If you aren’t sure where you lie on the scale, go to your GP to talk it through. It’s important to stay up to date on your own health measures.”

February is Heart Month, the annual event that aims to raise awareness of heart disease prevention. If you’re living with, are at risk of or affected by heart disease, why not sign up to receive Heart Matters, a free magazine published by the BHF? You can also find out your risk of heart disease and receive advice on how to act if your risk turns out to be higher than it should be by using the charity’s heart age tool.

And remember, your local Careway pharmacist also has plenty of advice to help keep your heart healthy. Many pharmacies also offer heart check tests such as blood pressure and blood sugar monitoring, as well as cholesterol screening. And if you’ve decided to give up smoking, your local pharmacist can help with that too (find your nearest participating Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder).