There is ample evidence that exposure to air pollution is risky for those with heart or lung disease. A new study, from public health researchers in Germany and the United States, highlights the hazard that pollution poses to people with diabetes which, itself, carries a risk of heart problems. The research focused on blood pressure which is known to be prone to fluctuations (high or low) as a result of the diabetes disease process. This team of researchers had already shown that increased PM (Particulate Matter) pollution exposure interferes with blood pressure regulation, as well as causing inflammation and impaired functioning in the lining of the blood vessels. All of these effects could set the scene for heart disease, and people with diabetes have been shown to be especially sensitive to these effects. In brief, exposure to air pollution could raise the risk of heart disease among people with diabetes.
A group of 70 people with type 2 diabetes, aged 40 to 84 and living in Boston, took part. The researchers measured PM levels, focusing upon PM2.5 (particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less and known to be more hazardous to health than larger particles). They also measured carbon particles and ozone which, again, are health risks. Meteorological data, including temperature, was also recorded. The participants' blood pressure readings were also taken on a number of occasions.
Blood pressure was found to increase with increasing levels of PM2.5 and black carbon. However, increases in ozone concentration were linked to a decreasein blood pressure. Temperature increases were also associated with a decrease in blood pressure.
The researchers conclude that people with diabetes are particularly sensitive to environmental stressors like air pollution and heat. The impact on their blood pressure could explain why previous research has found that short-term increases in air pollution are linked to more instances of heart attack and stroke among those with diabetes.
You may think that the two effects on blood pressure cancel one another out – increased with PM exposure, decreased with ozone exposure. It is certainly true that lowered blood pressure is usually a health goal for people with diabetes. However, the lowering with exposure to pollution occurs rapidly, which is not good for the heart or circulation. What pollution does is to exacerbate the already disordered control of blood pressure in people with diabetes – and that is dangerous.
So what should someone with diabetes do? Exercise – particularly regular walking – is one of the mainstays of managing type 2 diabetes and is very important in its prevention. At home you can effectively protect yourself through the use of a high performance air purifier. The key here will be to achieve enough complete air exchanges per hour at a consistently high filtration efficiency. You should also find out more about your city's pollution levels and do your walking in areas that are less polluted, or even head for the countryside. And, of course, more should be done to control levels of pollution in our cities. This study took place in Boston where pollution levels were not even particularly high. Just imagine what might be happening to people with diabetes in cities like Beijing, or London.