Air pollution has been linked to heart attacks, strokes and atherosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”), thanks to research published on Tuesday in PLOS Medicine. The study found that high concentrations of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) were linked with faster thickening of artery walls.
The thickening was found in the inner walls of the carotid artery. This is the main blood vessel providing blood to the head, neck and brain.
The team also found that reductions in particulate levels were linked to a slower progression of blood vessel thickness.
Blood vessel thickness is a symptom of atherosclerosis, and is present throughout the body even for people without obvious symptoms of heart disease.
“Our findings help us to understand how it is that exposures to air pollution may cause the increases in heart attacks and strokes observed by other studies,” said Sara Adar, John Searle Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, University of Michigan School of Public Health.
The research was conducted by a team led by Adar and Joel Kaufman, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and Medicine, University of Washington. The researchers 5362 people aged between 45 to 84 years old from six U.S. metropolitan areas as part of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis and Air Pollution (MESA Air).
They took ultrasound measurements of blood vessels 3 years apart. All participants in the study had no known heart disease. The researchers found that on average, the thickness of the carotid vessel increased by 14 µm each year. The rate was faster for those who were exposed to higher residential levels of fine particulate matter.
“Linking these findings with other results from the same population suggests that persons living in a more polluted part of town may have a 2 percent higher risk of stroke as compared to people in a less polluted part of the same metropolitan area,” Adar said.
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