Is geography my health destiny?
When you were young, you lived wherever your parents chose to live. You didn’t give any thought to whether they had chosen a place that was conducive to your overall wellness.
Chances are your parents didn’t give it much thought either.
Attitudes haven’t changed—few of us appreciate how much it matters where we live. According to urban economists, rural America now accounts for just 16% of the nation’s population, the lowest ever. So, why are young persons fleeing the countryside for metropolitan areas? Cities are where high-paying industries are clustering. They’re also vibrant, social magnets for like-minded, nouveau professionals. It’s where it’s at!
But where you live also matters to your health. For example, living in an urban area increases the odds that you’ll be involved in a violent crime. The accumulation of common but persistent stresses caused by city crowding can adversely affect your mental health. Worse yet, the air that you breathe could be killing you.
Every breath you take.
According to the American Lung Association, despite continued improvement in air quality, more than half (52%) of the total U.S. population live with unhealthful levels of air pollution. It’s 2016 national air quality “report card” found that 166 million Americans are at risk for premature death and other serious health effects like lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and reproductive harm from the air that we breathe.
In urban areas, harmful automotive emissions are responsible for anywhere between 50 and 90% of air pollution. Ozone is the most widespread form and is created when heat and sunshine react with gases emitted from vehicle tailpipes or smokestacks. When inhaled, ozone irritates the lungs causing wheezing, coughing, and asthma attacks. In addition, ultra-fine particles, such as those from tire wear and diesel exhaust, also adversely affect our health. Unsurprisingly, these pollutants are heaviest near major roads in urban areas.
The road to ruin.
Nubile NeXters, you have more to be concerned about than a hacking cough and watery eyes. People who live near urban thoroughfares have higher rates of dementia*, research published in the medical journal The Lancet (2017) suggests. Researchers studied health information from 6.8 million adults aged 20 to 85 in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, from 2001 to 2012. Their analysis suggests that 7-11% of dementia cases within 50 meters (about 160 feet) of a major road could be caused by traffic. The association decreased to no additional risk for people living more than 200 meters (about 650 feet) from a major road.
A second study published in Translational Psychiatry (2017) examined 3,647 women aged 65 to 79 in 48 states. Researchers said findings confirmed evidence linking environmental factors, such as automotive-derived air pollution, to higher levels of dementia among people living near heavy traffic roads. If their results can be extended to the general population, they say that air pollution may account for nearly 21% of dementia cases worldwide, including Alzheimer’s.
It’s important to note these studies did not show that traffic caused the increased number of cases. But they “hint” that living close to major roads may have an effect, with more research needed to understand the link of traffic on cognitive functioning. Dementia is a growing problem as more people live longer, and the Alzheimer’s Association estimates 5.4 million Americans of all ages are living with dementia today. Barring development of medical breakthroughs, that number may triple in 2050.
You’re young, you live in a city, and you want to stay healthy. Just to be on the safe side, what can you do?
- Try not to live close to a major traffic artery
- If you are able to do so, exercise indoors
- Exercise outdoors early in the day or an hour after it rains
- Walk one street (or better, two) back from busy thoroughfares
- Monitor local air pollution levels (some cities may have an app)
- For severe alerts, consider wearing a medical mask when outdoors.
* Dementia is not a specific disease. The term describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Experts say Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80% of cases.
Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).
~ Roman poet Juvenal, late 1st and early 2nd century AD
Learn more about this, and other interesting topics, in Brian Gahran’s book the Young Person’s Guide to Wisdom, Power, and Life Success.
Image credit: “Portrait of a young girl wearing a mask in the city street” by Pablo Hidalgo, licensed from 123rf.com (2017).