The risks of air pollution on the elderly population
As healthcare quality and technology improve, we are living longer than ever before. Compared to 14% in 2013, the global proportion of people aged 80 or over is expected to reach 19% by the year 20501. Along with children and pregnant women, the elderly population is one of the most vulnerable groups to the effects of air pollution, particularly when particulate matter (PM) levels are high. Let’s explore how to keep our older populations in the best health for as long as possible and to protect them from the dangers of poor air quality.
What is ageing?
The process of ageing is, of course, experienced by all of us, but the understanding of its effects on the body is perhaps not as widely comprehended. From a biological standpoint, ageing is the result of molecular and cellular damage that occurs progressively over time. Ultimately, this causes a decline in mental and physical capacity, and with it, a higher risk of disease due a decrease in the immune system’s ability to respond to infection1.
Some of the most common health conditions associated with getting older may include reduced lung capacity, hearing loss, cataracts, pain in the back and neck, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, respiratory disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, cancer, and dementia2.
The effects of air pollution on the elderly
Air pollution, especially particulate matter (PM), has been shown to be carcinogenic to humans. Exposure leads to higher incidence of lung and other types of cancer in non-smokers. With the elderly population’s already heightened vulnerability, the adverse effects of poor air quality are substantial.
Studies on the elderly population have focused mostly on the short-term health effects of air pollution. The results of these studies have determined that air pollution causes elderly individuals to have a higher risk of premature death and an increased number of hospital admissions, mainly due to respiratory tract infections (such as pneumonia) and exacerbation of chronic disease. The following studies have analysed hospital intake in elderly populations:
- A study in Barcelona, Spain, from 1985-1989 found that when the amount of SO2 in the air increased by 25 μg/m3 over a 24-hour period, the number of visits to hospital in people over the age of 65 for symptoms of COPD increased by 6% in winter and 9% in summer
- A study in Boston, United States, from 1995 to 1999 showed similar results but reported higher hospital admissions associated with increased levels of black carbon (BC), PM2.5, and carbon monoxide (CO)
- A study in Edmonton, Canada, showed an increase in emergency department admissions for asthma in elderly people as a result of an increase in the 5-day average level of NO21
In 2012, it was estimated that air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths on a global scale, 80% of which were a result of ischaemic heart disease and stroke, 14% of COPD, and 6% of lung cancer1.
The degree to which an older person is susceptible to air pollution depends on several factors, the most important of which may include the individual’s health history and pre-existing conditions. Ambient temperature also plays a role since the link between extreme heat and mortality in elderly populations is well-established and puts them at even further risk. The type of pollution also determines how severely an elderly person may be impacted as studies have shown them to be more vulnerable to fine particles such as PM10 and PM2.5. The current limits on air pollution set by the WHO may even be too high for older people1.
How can we protect our elderly populations from air pollution?
As stated above, the most concerning type of air pollutant for elderly people is particulate matter (PM), also known as fine particles. PM comes from such sources as vehicle emissions (cars and lorries, especially those using diesel fuel), soot from wood burning, volatile compounds created by factories, and the combustion of natural gas3. Most recommendations include preferring walking or biking instead of driving whenever possible to reduce the amount of vehicles on the road and, thus, the amount of emissions released into the air, but this may not be a possibility for the older population due to decreased mobility. Furthermore, since elderly populations tend to spend more time indoors (often in care homes), the problem of indoor air pollution is more significant than ever (remember: indoor air is 7-10 times more polluted than outdoor air!).
One of the best recommendations to protect elderly populations from the dangers of indoor air pollution is to equip their homes with air purifiers. According to Impact on Urban Health UK, there are around 65,000 people over the age of 65 living in inner-city boroughs throughout the country. 16% of care homes in these inner-city boroughs are located in areas where PM2.5 levels are 40% higher than established WHO limits4. This is an incredibly concerning problem that needs to be addressed!
Our bodies are capable of filtering out anything bigger than PM10, but intervention is needed for anything smaller. That’s where Eoleaf comes in. All of our air purifiers come equipped with HEPA-certified filters, capable of filtering out 99.97% of particles of a size greater than or equal to a diameter of 0.01 µm in a single pass. This means that our devices can filter out all fine particles down to PM0.1, in addition to germs (bacteria, viruses) and allergens (pollen, dust and dust mites, mould and spores).
Help our elderly populations live longer, healthier lives by breathing fresher air today. Reach out to our team of experts to choose the perfect device today.
1 Simoni M, Baldacci S, Maio S, Cerrai S, Sarno G, Viegi G. Adverse effects of outdoor pollution in the elderly. J Thorac Dis. 2015 Jan;7(1):34-45. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2072-1439.2014.12.10. PMID: 25694816; PMCID: PMC4311079.
2 World Health Organization. (2022, October 1). Ageing and health. World Health Organization. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ageing-and-health
3 Platzman Weinstock, C. (2019, November 21). Rising Air Pollution May Be Hurting Your Health. AARP. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2019/air-pollution-effects.html
4 Impact on Urban Health. (2021, August 13). Air pollution and older people - reports. Impact on Urban Health. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://urbanhealth.org.uk/insights/reports/air-pollution-and-older-people