Air pollution cuts benefits of exercise in elderly

Researchers at Imperial College London have found an association between exposure to road traffic pollution and an increased risk of low birth weights at term

Traffic pollution poses health risks for older people and unborn babies according to two separate studies published today.

A new study found that, ladies who are pregnant and are living in a habitat where there is enough air pollution during their pregnancy can effect their child during birth.

But the researchers, from Imperial College London and Duke University in the U.S., also discovered that air pollution is very localised - so leaving a busy street and exercising in a park instead was enough to reverse the trend.

Mother's home address at time of birth was recorded and average monthly concentrations of traffic related pollutants - nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from traffic exhaust and non-exhaust sources, such as brakes or tyre wear - as well as larger particulate matter (PM10) were estimated.

'For people living in the inner city it may be hard to find areas where they can walk, away from pollution ... we really need to reduce pollution by controlling traffic'. Average day and night-time road traffic noise levels were also estimated.

Analysis of the data, published in the British Medical Journal, showed the link between increased traffic-related air pollutants and low-weight or small babies.

Only policy makers have the power to protect women and unborn babies, argue researchers at the University of Edinburgh in a linked editorial.

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"Exercise is crucial in reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke, but it seems risky levels of air pollution could be erasing these benefits in older adults", said Simon Gillespie, chief executive at the BHF.

Participants spent two hours walking along traffic-heavy Oxford Street, which is one the most polluted spots in the United Kingdom, or in Hyde Park.

Physical measurements were taken before and after the walks to show the effects of the exercise on cardiovascular health, including measurements of lung volume exhaled, blood pressure, and the degree to which the blood vessels could expand.

In healthy participants the walk in Hyde Park led to a 7.5 per cent improvement in the amount of air they could expel in one breath and improvements in blood flow which persisted up to 26 hours after exercise. In contrast, volunteers who walked on Oxford Street had a "worrying increase" in artery stiffness following exercise. Healthy volunteers experienced a maximum reduction in arterial stiffness of just 4.6 per cent; COPD patients saw a 16 per cent reduction; and those with heart disease saw an 8.6 per cent reduction. It is worth noting that stress could account for some of the physiological differences seen between the two settings.

Walking is the sort of low impact exercise recommended by the NHS for older people to improve their cardiovascular fitness, but the study found that the impact of air pollution negated this.

Commenting on the results, Fan Chung, Professor of Respiratory Medicine and Head of Experimental Studies Medicine at the National Heart & Lung Institute at Imperial College London and senior author of the study, said: "These findings are important as for many people, such as the elderly or those with chronic disease, very often the only exercise they can do is to walk. We suggest that, where possible, older adults walk in parks or other green spaces away from busy roads".

The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation.

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