Have the recent headlines about the UK’s ‘toxic air’ left you confused and concerned? You’re probably not alone – air pollution suddenly seems to have become a big topic, and it’s not just the environmental impact that’s causing worry but the effects on our health too.

Earlier this month, Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, said the government needs to do more to tackle air pollution (with a tougher approach to reducing nitrogen dioxide from diesel vehicles one of the priorities), due to rising public health concerns.

So how big an issue is it really – and could air pollution be putting your heart health at risk?

Growing evidence

The short answer is yes: if you live in a town or city and spend lots of time near busy roads with lots of traffic. In the UK, it’s believed that air pollution contributes to around 40,000 premature deaths a year, with cardiovascular disease accounting for a significant chunk of these. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), globally, around 80% of deaths linked with outdoor air pollution are due to stroke or heart disease.

It’s still relatively early days in terms of understanding the full impact of air pollution on heart health, but there’s growing research indicating that it is a significant factor. Some studies have linked air pollution exposure with an increased build-up of fatty material in the arteries (known medically as ‘atherosclerosis’), which can cause heart disease, stroke and heart attacks. A recent British Heart Foundation study found particles from diesel exhaust fumes can affect blood vessel function, meaning an increased risk of blood clots developing in the coronary arteries (another cause of heart attacks).

What can you do about it?

For some people, if you live and work in a congested area, avoiding exposure to air pollution isn’t always going to be possible. As more research is done, and steps are taken to tackle the problem by reducing air pollution, perhaps the best thing to do is follow all the usual lifestyle advice to keep your heart as healthy as possible: not smoking, getting plenty of regular physical activity and exercise, only drinking alcohol in moderation, and eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Looking after your heart is important for everybody – but it’s especially important to pay attention to it if you have a family history of heart disease, or if you’re experiencing any symptoms that could indicate a heart problem, such as breathlessness, chest pain and abnormal heart beat (arrhythmia). These things don’t automatically mean you have a heart problem, but it’s always best to get things checked sooner rather than later, and there are a range of diagnostic tests available to help check if anything is going on.

Concerned about your heart health? Book an appointment to discuss your heart health with leading London heart specialist Dr Syed Ahsan.