Could the air you breathe cause a heart attack or stroke?



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Posted on May 10, 2010 at 5:35 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:44 AM

SEATTLE - A new study involving researchers from the University of Washington is changing the way doctors advise heart patients.

They have drawn substantial links between heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases, not just to what we eat, but to what we breathe.

Heavy traffic, particularly freeways like in the Southcenter area, where two big ones, I-5 and I-405, come together, is now considered a much stronger cause of health problems, and what your lungs can handle, your heart may not.

"It became more clear the burden of disease is more on heart and vascular systems than on the lungs ... a bit of a surprise," said Dr. Joel Kaufman, University of Washington.

The group of researchers used air pollution measuring devices posted around the country and matched them up with studies on heart attack and stroke victims to find a much stronger link than suspected. Something bad happens to your heart when you breathe pollution from freeways, coal burning power plants and other pollution producers.

"It appears that air pollution causes changes in vasculature, blood pressure goes up a little, arteries get a little bit smaller," said Kaufman.

And that is a deadly combination.

Vance Lobe is celebrating a year of life after having a massive heart attack on the job.  He changed his diet and exercise after paramedics and doctors saved his life. Now he knows he'll have to limit his exposure to the big city.

"When you're breathing bad stuff into your lungs it's not good for you ... it's getting around to your heart it's probably not helping that either," he said.

But the American Heart Association says it's not just the big city. While most of Washington state's bad air pollution areas are in the heavily populated areas such as King and Pierce counties, fleeing to Snohomish or Yakima County won't do you much good.

Doctors say it means people, especially with heart problems, should find ways to limit how much exposure they get wherever they live.
And that means closing the windows if you live near busy highways and limiting the amount of time you exercise or work during high traffic days.

This study isn't a death sentence for people who do live or work in those areas, but doctors say it is something to consider, along with all those other rises like diet and exercise.