Increasing life expectancy rates and declining birth rates have led to an increase in the world’s older population (i.e. those aged 65 and above) in recent years. However, this demographic constitutes those individuals who are perceptibly more vulnerable to the impact of air pollution. They are a group with high levels of long-term conditions occurring at the same time such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), heart disease, diabetes and blood pressure (WHO,2021).1 As such, older people are disproportionately affected by air pollution. Furthermore, the elderly who have other underlying diseases, such as asthma and pneumonia, have weaker lungs and are therefore, more prone to falling ill because of air pollution. Older bodies also tend to have a relatively weaker capability in fending off inflammation and other damage caused by breathing in pollutants, which in turn accelerates the greater vulnerability of this demographic.
Since the elderly tend to spend a greater proportion of their time indoors, it might be expected that the impact of ambient air pollution on them is minimal. However, a study in 2021 by Harvard T.H.C School of Public Health finds that exposure to “low levels of air pollution – even below national standards – can increase the risk of serious cardiac and respiratory conditions in elderly adults”.2 Fine particulate matter can often remain in the lungs for long periods of time after being exposed to air pollution, in turn causing inflammation. This increases the risk of heart disease or stroke as stiffened blood vessels lose flexibility and become weak. Many studies have illustrated the spikes in particulate matter associated with increased strokes and hospitalisations for elderly folk. In addition, a review published by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has concluded that there’s emerging evidence of a positive correlation between exposure to airborne pollutants and the risk of dementia (AARP,2019).3
In order to counter their greater susceptibility to air pollution, the elderly can take routine measures such as wearing a face mask when going outside in order to prevent breathing smog and avoiding heavily congested areas. Those with underlying conditions such as asthma and bronchitis should preferably stay indoors during peak hours and take account of air quality advisories. These individuals should also ensure to maintain a healthy diet and adhere to air quality advice given out by health care providers and local health officials.
1 WHO, ‘’Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)’’, June 2021, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-(copd), (accessed on 18 March 2022)
2 Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, ‘’Even low levels of air pollution can harm hearts, lungs in elderly’’, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/even-low-levels-of-air-pollution-can-harm-hearts-lungs-in-elderly/ (accessed on 15 March 2022)
3 American Association of Retired Person (AARP), ‘’Rising air pollution may be hurting your health’’, https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2019/air-pollution-effects.html#:~:text=In%202016%2C%20a%20study%20published,vulnerable%20to%20these%20health%20effects (accessed on 15 March 2022)
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