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  • Could my work commute increase my mortality risk?
  • February 16, 2012
  • life insurance and environmental toxins

    A systemic problem

    Pope says the respiratory impact of breathing in fine particles has been studied for years, but analyzing its potential cardiovascular impact is something relatively new and is not as well understood. He says even a mild to moderate inflammation of the lungs, caused by pollution, could send signals throughout the body.

    Even short-term exposure has an inflammatory response, which might not have an immediate response for a healthy individual but can exacerbate the condition of someone with atherosclerotic problems—a hardening of the arteries which is a factor in heart disease and strokes. Pope notes that gum disease is known to increase the risk of a heart attack, so the potential impact of inflammation in the lungs is even greater.

    “Basically this inflammation becomes systemic and that seems to be true with your lungs,” Pope says. “If you think of the lungs versus your gums, the lungs, if you spread them all out, they’re about the size of a tennis court so all those alveolar sacs in your lungs, if you were to spread them way out you’ve got a huge surface area so the capacity to contribute to systemic inflammation is substantial.”

    Even though cars today burn cleaner than they did in the past, Avol says their emissions controls were designed to function when cars are moving. They don’t perform as well in stop and go traffic.

    Many cars these days come with cabin air filters, which can have some positive benefit but are necessarily inefficient as the cabins themselves are not well sealed and need to allow fresh air inside.

    Experts suggest living as close to work and as possible and using public transportation as ways of mitigating the effects of a long commute—as well as trying to travel during off-peak hours. Exercise is important but should be done off major roads, as even getting a block or two away can help.

    “People who spend a lot of time commuting may or may not have time for exercise. They may be pretty sedentary,” Avol says. “If you’re a heavy commuter you’ve got to take a look at your total life and what you’re doing, make sure that your life is balanced out. There’s more to life than just commuting and work. Trying to find some time for yourself, trying to improve your diet, trying to get some exercise, try to reduce your stress when you are commuting all of those things are going to help you from the health standpoint.”

    life insurance, health risks and sitting in trafficMitigating the problem

    Pope suggests installing High-Efficiency Particulate Air filter at home, which can provide an improvement in cardiac autonomic function and help offset the impact of a polluted commute.

    “I wish I could say you know you spend an hour a day commuting it’s going to reduce your life expectancy by X amount of years and increase your risk of dying by heart disease by X amount and that sort of thing,” Pope says. “The literature is not strong enough to be able to say that but we can say that the evidence is compelling that being exposed to this fine particulate pollution increases your risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease in fairly significant ways and that for many people, especially those with long commutes on congested highways.”

    While the stress of a long commute is thought to be less of a factor than that of pollution, these two factors can exacerbate each other—especially when considering that commuting itself is a sedentary activity that takes away from time that could be spent exercising.

    “It is likely that stress from commuting or sitting in traffic can and does lead to some similar health responses as exposure to air pollution. It is also possible that being stressed may make someone more sensitive to air pollution health effects or vice versa, “ Yip said via email. “Currently, there are only a few studies that have looked at the interaction between psychosocial stress and air pollution, but this is still an emerging scientific issue.”

    For those who still must deal with a stressful commute, relaxation CDs and techniques can help them keep their emotions under control, advises Dr. Lori Mosca, a professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and director of preventive cardiology at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

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  • Category: Featured Story, Life Insurance

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