Friday, February 15, 2008

Air Quality and Aging: What's the Relationship?

As we age, our bodies become less able to compensate for the effects of environmental hazards, and studies have shown that air pollution can actually aggravate stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). All of these health problems eventually lead to increased medication use, admissions to emergency rooms and hospitals, and sometimes even death.

Particulate matter and ozone have the greatest potential to affect the health of the elderly, and fine particles have been repeatedly linked to cardiac arrhythmias, heart attacks, bronchitis, and premature death. In addition, ozone has also been shown to exacerbate respiratory diseases.

In an attempt to address the issue of older adults and air quality, the EPA has developed and published fact sheets that are intended to inform older adults about environmental health risks and how to reduce those risks.

One such fact sheet deals with the problem of COPD, and the EPA notes that the disease includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema – lung diseases which frequently coexist and are characterized by obstruction to air flow, making it difficult to breathe. In terms of environmental triggers for COPD, the EPA also notes that exposure to outdoor air pollution can pose a significant risk, especially to those suffering from lung disease. As well, ozone has also been shown to aggravate respiratory diseases and may result in increased emergency room and hospital admissions.

Regarding indoor air, because older people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, common indoor airborne pollutants such as tobacco smoke, dust, animal dander, mold, and pollen can trigger COPD and asthma attacks. In addition, combustion products such as oil, gas, coal, and buildings and furnishings made of pressed wood can also exacerbate the above diseases.

If you or a loved one experiences symptoms of COPD or asthma, the EPA recommends consulting a doctor and taking the following precautions:

- Check the Air Quality Index if planning to spend extended time outdoors
- Avoid smoke from wood-burning stoves
- Avoid tobacco smoke
- Reduce mold and dust from your home
- Regularly check furnaces and heating units annually
- Keep pets out of sleeping areas

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