Traffic Triples Heart Attack Risk

Whether driving or riding, time spent in gridlock puts your heart in danger.

March 13, 2009

Stress, pollution, or both makes traffic bad for your heart.

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.

Read more about heart disease:
Know your real risk of heart attack and stroke.
Learn the symptoms of heart disease in women.
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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.

• Munch on colorful fruits and veggies. “Current research has shown that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are also rich in antioxidants, which can protect you from air-pollution-related damage,” says Peters.

• Know your risk. “I think one thing my study proves,” says Peters, “is that it’s important to know your cardiovascular risk profile and improve it where possible with lifestyle measures or with medications, if needed.” Talk to your doctor to determine the health of your heart and to pinpoint your personal degree of heart disease risk. According to the American Heart Association, the major risk factors for heart disease are:

Increasing age: Over 83 percent of people who die of coronary heart disease are 65 or older.

Male gender: Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women do, and they have attacks earlier in life.

Heredity: Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves. Compared to Caucasians, heart disease risk is higher among African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians, and some Asian Americans.

Tobacco smoke: Smokers’ risk of developing coronary heart disease is 2 to 4 times that of nonsmokers. Exposure to other people’s smoke increases risk even for nonsmokers.

High cholesterol: As blood cholesterol rises, so does risk of coronary heart disease.

High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload, causing the heart to thicken and become stiffer.

Physical inactivity: Regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity helps prevent heart and blood-vessel disease.

Obesity: People who have excess body fat (especially if a lot of it is at the waist) are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke, even if they have no other risk factors.

Diabetes: Even when glucose (blood sugar) levels are under control, diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Risks are even greater if blood sugar isn’t well controlled.

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