RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS PA—Reducing traffic and improving air quality aren’t just good for the environment. A new study proves less time in traffic alleviates a personal health-care concern as well.
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“Clean air isn’t only relevant for people with respiratory disease, but also for subjects with underlying heart disease,” asserts Annette Peters, PhD, head of research at the Institute of Epidemiology at Helmholtz Zentrum Muchen in Neuherberg, Germany. Her new study definitively links traffic exposure to heart attacks in people with a pre-existing risk.
THE DETAILS: German researchers surveyed 1,454 people (25 percent of them women) who’d had a heart attack, knew the date and time of the attack, and survived the attack. The patients (whose average age was 60) were interviewed about potential heart attack triggers they may have been experienced, including exposure to traffic. About 8 percent of the heart attacks in the study were attributable to traffic, and the risk for women was 5 times higher than for men.
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WHAT IT MEANS: Traffic can kill—and not just via accidents. While the researchers aren’t sure whether traffic-related pollution, the stress of being in traffic, or a combination of the two was behind the higher risk of heart attack, driving a car (and the aggravation typically associated with it) wasn’t the only source of traffic exposure in their study. Riding as a passenger in a car, riding a bicycle, and taking public transportation all factored in as well. Overall, the study authors write, time spent in any mode of transportation in traffic was associated with a 3.2 times higher risk.
Here’s what you can do to downshift your heart attack risk:
• Avoid drive time. “All of us, but especially people with underlying heart disease, would benefit from spending less time in traffic,” says Peters. Try commuting earlier or later, if you can, to avoid peak congestion. Explore the possibility of telecommuting, even if it’s just for one day a week. Plan to run errands either before or after peak traffic hours. And walk or ride your bike whenever possible, avoiding highly trafficked roads. These alternatives reduce your exposure, help minimize your contribution to traffic-related pollution, and get you the exercise that’s good for your heart.
• Exercise away from exhaust.
Peters recommends avoiding strenuous activities while exposed to traffic-related air pollution. “For instance,” she says, “jogging on busy major roads for extended time periods should be avoided.”
• Turn on the air. If you find yourself stuck in heavy traffic, turn on the AC, and make sure to push the “recirculate” button to reduce the incoming flow of outside air. “Traffic-related air-pollution exposure may be reduced,” says Peters.