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Pollution linked to heart disease risk

7th December 2010

Tiny cameras used by US researchers can reveal the effects of pollution on human tissues 100 times smaller than human hair.

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The researchers took photographs of people's eyes, linking air pollution with increased heart disease risk.

The researchers focused on retinal blood vessels, which are structured the same as the tiny blood vessels that permeate the body, and can be seen without subjecting the body to surgery.

Sara Adar, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said that the study was not alone in linking pollution with heart disease.

However, the study is the first to show the health consequences of very small amounts of pollution over short periods of time, because it is the first time scientists have examined the body's real-time responses to polluted air.

The study also shows that no one is exempt from the effects of pollution, and that otherwise healthy people also tend to develop a higher risk of heart disease due to blood-vessel narrowing.

For the purposes of the study, the researchers gathered 4,607 people between the ages of 45 and 84.

None of the participants had any history of heart disease.

The researchers then took tiny digital photographs of the participants' retinal blood vessels, making sure to also measure pollution levels in the peoples' homes for a two-year span.

Adar said that, even though the pollution levels were acceptable by US regulatory standards, they still damaged people's bodies.

Joel Kaufman of the University of Washington in Seattle, who also worked on the study, said that the research showed there were strong links between people's fatal heart attacks and higher pollution exposure.

Adar said that, if all of the body's blood vessels were affected the same as the microscopic capillaries in the retina, then pollution would have important consequences for human health.

In the study, people who were only exposed to low levels of pollution for short periods of time seemed to age by three years as a result.

And people whose exposure to pollution was more long-term seemed to automatically age seven years as a result, and that such changes translated to a 3% increased heart disease risk for women living in areas with high levels of air pollution.


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