Lifestyle choices could prevent up to 80% of heart attacks, but did you know those measures aren’t limited to diet, exercise and avoiding tobacco? A whole host of other factors can play a role in heart attack and cardiac arrest, including air and noise pollution, lack of access to green spaces and direct sunlight, low sleep quality and rising nighttime temperatures. As a caregiver of an older adult, learn how you can reduce some of these lesser-known risks to protect the seniors in your life.
Pollution is hard on hearts
Geriatrician Bing Zhao, MD, PhD, explained on the Your Outside Mind podcast that the biggest known danger from air pollution isn’t to the lungs, but rather the heart:
“People primarily focus on respiratory systems, like with asthma. But heart disease was previously unrecognized, and I found the consequences due to air pollution exceeded those of respiratory disease.”
Her study on pollution in Japan found that the risk of cardiac events rose even after short-term exposure to air pollution. Furthermore, she found no safe level exists of ambient fine particulate matter (pollution particles so tiny a couple dozen together are smaller around than a strand of human hair). Another study – this one from Harvard – found that long-term exposure to low levels of pollution (even those under national standards) led to an increase in heart attacks among seniors.
Zhao had practical tips for seniors to take on high-pollution days, such as using an air purifier to keep indoor air breathable and staying inside when air quality is low. She also encourages people to visit green spaces often to offset the effects of pollution.
Noise can damage more than just your eardrums; it can also do a number on your heart. The author of a study demonstrating the link between noise pollution and heart attacks, Dr. Abel Moreyra, MD, previously told Seasons:
“In the cardiology community, we are so used to thinking about traditional risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking and high cholesterol, but now we are learning more about how air pollution and noise come into play too and how these also contribute to cardiovascular disease.”
His study found that living in a noisy area increased the risk of heart attack by 72%. A study in the National Library of Medicine found that traffic noise, especially at night, “causes fragmentation of sleep, elevation of stress hormone levels, and oxidative stress. These factors can promote the development of vascular dysfunction and high blood pressure, which, in turn, elevate the cardiovascular risk.”
Go green to reset
The lack of green spaces affects our hearts more than we might realize. Just as noise pollution is negatively associated with markers that increase the risk of heart attack, green spaces are associated with fewer stressors on the heart—which leads to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and fewer heart attacks.
Author and retired professor of nursing Verla Fortier stresses the importance of green spaces for cardiac health and encourages everyone – especially seniors – to plan green space breaks into their day in order to get back into balance.
“It doesn’t even need to be exercise,” she said, citing five minutes as all that’s needed to bring heart rates down.
Hiding from the sun could backfire
Not getting enough sunlight could be a missed opportunity to lower blood pressure and, in turn, heart attack risk. This is because sun exposure allows nitric oxide in the skin to enter the circulatory system where it works to bring down blood pressure and thus reduce heart attack risk, according to a study from the University of Edinburgh. While it’s important to protect against skin cancer by limiting sun exposure, avoiding direct sunlight altogether can backfire—and not just from the lack of vitamin D production. More research is needed to understand the different ways sunshine can affect heart health.
Sleep for heart health
Lack of sleep also raises heart attack risk as the body relies on rest periods to temporarily lower blood pressure and give the heart a break. Nocturnal dipping – the normal decrease in blood pressure during sleep – allows for a 10-20% drop in blood pressure during sleeping hours. When nocturnal dipping does not occur, daytime blood pressure can increase. Sleep deprivation and sleep problems have also been linked to an increase in plaque buildup, which causes coronary heart disease, heart failure and chronic inflammation. Those who sleep less than six hours per night have been shown to have a 20% increase in their risk of a heart attack.
High temps raise risk
Extreme heat can take a toll on the elderly, but it turns out that even small increases in temperature can have deadly effects on men in their 60s. In fact, heart attacks surge for that population with just a small hike in nighttime temps, according to a University of Toronto study. A one-degree (Celsius) rise was linked to a 4.8% increase in death from cardiac events among men 60-64..
It’s important to have an effective cooling system that can handle high temperatures, even in areas where air conditioning used to be unnecessary. And be sure to have a backup plan in the event of the loss of power.
For those who may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of lifestyle factors that could increase heart attack risk, consider this advice from Fortier:
“Be aware of your environment as you move through your day. Even in a matter of hours the air we breathe, the noises we hear, and the emotions we feel directly affect how our hearts beat. My advice: Pay attention to your emotions, plan around air and noise pollution, and bake into your routine five minutes of green space so that your heart can get back into balance and effectively pump blood throughout your body.”