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Traffic advisory: watch your heart

Exposure to traffic has been identified as a trigger for heart attacks for people with heart disease, more so in women, elderly men, the unemployed and those with a history of angina, writes Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Mar 14, 2009 23:08 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Most people I know are convinced their daily commute is slowly and surely killing them. Now there is scientific evidence to prove them right.

Exposure to traffic has been identified as a trigger for heart attacks for people with heart disease, more so in women, elderly men, the unemployed and those with a history of angina (pain or discomfort in the chest). A person is said to have heart disease if he or she has two or more risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, among others.

The finding has created a buzz at the ongoing American Heart Association’s Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, with a large survey of heart attack patients in Europe showing that most of them had been in traffic within an hour of the start of their symptoms. Overall, using any mode of transportation — cars, public transportation (bus, train and metro) and bicycle — in traffic led to a 3.2 times higher risk than time spent away from this trigger.

What worried me about the findings was that air quality in western Europe — the study was done at the Institute of Epidemiology, Helmholtz Zentrum Muchen, Germany — is far, far superior than the air polluted with fumes from diesel-guzzling vehicles in most parts of India. Unlike in India, most of Europe — including Germany — not just has strict vehicular emission norms but also the will and infrastructure to implement them. If we start factoring in the noxious fumes most of us reathe in, the risk would be certainly higher.

The impact of stress on heart disease is part of popular culture in India, with countless bad actors having died clutching their hearts in Bollywood films. Stress puts pressure on the heart by constricting blood vessels, causing blood clots and raising blood pressure. At greatest risk are people with heart or lung disease and older adults.

Air pollution has increasingly been linked with disorders other than lung diseases, with airborne particulate matter and ground-level ozone being the greatest threats to health. Made up of microscopic solids and liquid droplets, particulate matter can go deep into the lungs and trigger disorders as diverse as heart and asthma attacks.

The other threat is ozone — more commonly referred to as smog — which causes symptoms of cough, wheezing, throat irritation and a burning sensation in your airways. Ozone can aggravate asthma and reduce lung function, triggering attacks.

Since most of us cannot wish away commuting or air quality in our town or city, we should consider reducing risk by using the relaxation response — which is the opposite of the stress response — to calm the body. Choose whichever method makes you feel calmer, from listening to music, doing meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, walking, playing with children or your dog, or working out. As long as you keep calm, the traffic, the stress and the smog cannot get you.

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