New research exposes the link between heart health, early death, and climate change, plus ways to fight it now.
Climate change is creating the need for a new specialized focus on cardiovascular health, says new research. The findings are published in the open-access journal, BMJ Global Health.
According to the research team out of New York’s Mount Sinai hospital, NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine, and the University of Washington, Seattle, greenhouse gases are at their highest levels in at least 800,000 years. This is related to more frequent weather events, increased air pollution, ecosystem collapse, and pressures on global food production, including drops in nutritional value.
This, the researchers say, all impact cardiovascular health and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) both directly and indirectly.
Climate change and cardiovascular health
“The window is closing to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The healthcare sector must take urgent action to prevent the climate crisis from undermining cardiovascular health,” the researchers warn.
According to the findings, high temperatures were responsible for approximately 93,000 cardiovascular deaths in 2019. The researchers say extreme weather is a risk factor for trauma, stress, and depression, all of which increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Air pollution primarily from fossil fuel burning, industrial emissions, and landscape fires are responsible for nearly 20 percent of all cardiovascular deaths globally—about 3.54 million per year.
The findings come just days after another study, this one out of Europe, concluded that life-threatening arrhythmias—irregular heartbeats—are more common on days with highly polluted air. That research was presented today at Heart Failure 2022, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology.
The changing climate is also impacting food nutrition, the researchers say: desertification, increases in CO2, and ocean warming and acidification are making food staples including fresh produce, whole grains, and seafood, less nutritious. The researchers calculate this as the case of more than three million cardiovascular deaths per year. Further, extreme weather events are expected to increase cases of ecosystem collapse, forcing the migration of hundreds of millions of people where cardiovascular care may be insufficient.
The issue is exacerbated by the industry charged with caring for climate change’s victims; the health care sector produces nearly ten percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers note.
“Priority should be given to interventions that both prevent CVD and reduce net GHG emissions,” urge the researchers. “Such interventions are often highly cost-effective by mitigating poor cardiovascular outcomes and consequences of climate change. The burden of CVD attributed to climate change accumulates over a lifetime of hazardous exposures, beginning as early as childhood, but often not manifesting as cardiovascular events until later in life. Thus, attempts should be made to protect individuals of all ages from such exposures.”
The researchers are calling for action across several key areas. Their first recommendation is a transition away from a meat-based diet to a predominantly plant-based diet. This, they say is “required” and must be facilitated by a restructuring of subsidies and taxes. Red meat alone was linked to 738,000 cardiovascular deaths in 2019.
An increase in green spaces could serve double duty, the researchers say, both as a means to reduce stress through practices such as forest bathing, and by absorbing CO2, particularly in urban environments.
The team is also urging for a shift to active transport such as walking and cycling, which also serves double duty by increasing physical activity to reduce stress and lower CVD risks—physical inactivity was linked to 639,000 cardiovascular deaths in 2019, the researchers say. As well, it’s an important tool in reducing emissions by supplanting fossil-fuel-based modes of travel.
Reducing dependence on fossil fuels overall is critical, according to the researchers. They say a shift toward renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy would save upwards of 20 million deaths over the next thirty years.
This shift also incused energy used in cooking—the researchers attribute indoor coal and biomass burning as responsible for more than one million cardiovascular death in 2019. They suggest clean cooking stoves are not only healthier, but more cost-effective. Last week in California, the Los Angeles CIty Council voted to ban most gas appliances in new construction. There are more than 50 cities in the state with similar bans in place to mitigate the state’s emissions.
According to the researchers, hospitals and health care systems need to invest in disaster planning and better prepare for “waves of illness” associated with climate change.
“A new field of climate cardiology can study and implement such opportunities to protect patients and the planet,” they said. They’re also calling for more education and research on environmental health and sustainable practices in healthcare.
The findings come on the heels of another recent study that predicted climate change could impact sleep as warming temperatures around the world would lead to an average loss of about two percent of sleep per night.
“Our results indicate that sleep—an essential restorative process integral for human health and productivity—may be degraded by warmer temperatures,” lead author Kelton Minor of the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement. “In order to make informed climate policy decisions moving forward, we need to better account for the full spectrum of plausible future climate impacts extending from today’s societal greenhouse gas emissions choices.”