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Heart Healthy Environment: How Does Your Environment Impact Your Heart

Living in a heart-healthy environment is very important.

What Does it Take to Be in a Heart-Healthy Environment?

New findings (1) published earlier this month explain how certain environmental factors can affect heart health. The study collaborators include the CDC, National Weather Service, NY Department of Health, University at Albany, and Sun Yat-sen University.

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Extreme heat

Using data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, they studied 5,848 babies with congenital heart defects and 5,742 babies with no structural deficits. By studying weather conditions during the critical development of the fetus, the team found that 3-11 days of exposure to extreme heat during Spring and Summer was significantly associated with an increase in certain congenital heart defects. Also, ventricular and atrial septal defects (hole in the heart), were conditions most related to exposure to extreme heat.

High wind chill temperatures

The research team reviewed 662,625 heart disease-related ER visits in the state of New York, looking at the effects of wind chill and cold air temperatures. They found that an increase in heart disease happened when the wind chill temperatures were as high as 25° Fahrenheit. For example, the current wind chill warning is for -20° or below Fahrenheit. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, related emergencies have the most definite relationship between air temperature and wind chill temperature.

Air pollution and pet ownership

In China, the researchers studied 9,354 children from 5-17 years of age in 24 different districts. They monitored blood pressure and concentrations of air and smoke pollutants. Then, they discovered the association between exposure to air and smoke pollutants and hypertension was more reliable in children that didn’t have pets versus those children that lived with pets. In short, it would appear that pet ownership may have a beneficial effect. However, scientists need further research to make this conclusion more solid.

Arsenic and lead

The New York Times published an article (2) about the effects of arsenic and lead on cardiovascular disease.

Researchers did a study of 20,000 residents in Bangladesh. This is a country plagued by naturally occurring arsenic that contaminates groundwater. They found an increase in deaths from cardiovascular disease and a correlation between longer exposure and more profound health effects.

Another scientific study found strong evidence that exposure to lead causes hypertension, with some evidence showing an increase in cardiovascular disease.

Other Factors

Environmental factors are not the only ones that can affect your risk for heart disease – cultural factors can also make a difference.

For example, how much you make for a living can also affect your heart health, especially when it’s tough to make ends meet.

The American Heart Association (AHA) and American College of Cardiology recognize the impact of social factors.

In new guidelines, they recognize that “socioeconomic inequalities are strong determinants” of cardiovascular risk.

According to Dr. Michelle Albert, a member of the committee in charge of writing the new guidelines, these social factors need to be addressed.

“Social determinants must be part of the cardiovascular prevention conversation with patients. Doctors know these things are important but typically, they’ve just focused on traditional risk factors,” she said.

Dr. Albert is a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and director of the Center for the Study of Adversity and Cardiovascular Disease.

She explains that “only about 20 percent of cardiovascular risk is genetics. The other 80 percent is either behavioral or environmental.”

She continues:

“What we’ve done with our previous guidelines is focused on behaviors that are traditional risk factors when, in fact, social determinants are driving the show, especially for those communities where socioeconomic adversity and thus gaps in cardiovascular mortality persist.”

In determining how to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, it is important to take a patient’s lifestyle, background, and environment into account.

“Addressing social determinants can give you a bigger bang for your buck, likely, than using a pill,” says Dr. Albert.

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