Do you have a green park close to your house?
A noisy windmill or heavy traffic?
Do you have a view – or a green wall?
And how’s your night. Pitch dark or full of artificial light?
All these factors can have an affect on how good your life will be as older persons. And professor Zorana Jovanovic Andersen from Copenhagen University is set on identifying all relevant environmental pollutants that accelerate and affect ageing. She is part of CHALLENGE and has high ambitions of the results:
“I expect that we have a better idea of how pollution affect dementia and aging. Hopefully, we will know if the levels of air pollution, that we have in Denmark, increase dementia risk,” says Zorana Jovanovic.
When it comes to air pollution she and her family live in a red zone. If you live in Denmark, then look up your street at this map: Luften på din vej. Here you can see the quality of the air that surrounds you. Zorana, her husband and her three kids live in an appartment on the heavily polluted Falkoner Allé in Frederiksberg. She also bikes to work at some of the most polluted streets by the lakes in Copenhagen. She has chosen that route because of the scenery and convenience in spite of the pollution.
“Air pollution mainly affects people with preexisting chronic diseases, such as chronic lung disease, asthma, and cardiovascular diseases, who may experience worsening of their disease, such as getting asthma symptoms or shortness of breath when biking on a busy road. Healthy people like me typically do not experience symptoms due to air pollution, and are not majorly affected. We should not worry about air pollution in our daily life, when choosing to exercise, as it is always better for your health to bike than not to bike.”
“So, air pollution leaves a very small personal risk of developing a disease for healthy people, as compared to other lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking, for example. But as air pollution exposes everybody, it becomes a public health problem, as it increases the risk a little bit for everybody, and this accumulates to a substantial burden for society. Furthermore, as we all live longer, and many people will live longer with one or several chronic diseases, burden of air pollution on aging population will increase in the future” she says.
Today, we know that exposure to air pollution increases risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and lung cancer, ultimately shortening life expectancy. Air pollution decreases lung function in elderly, for example, as does smoking. What we don’t know is whether air pollution affects our brain and whether it may worsen our cognitive functioning, which is naturally declining in older age. Therefore Zorana is looking whether air pollution is speeding up the decline of our cognitive functions and maybe even contributing to the risk of dementia.
“We look at air pollution, but also at environment as a whole, and other related factors in our general environment such as noise, green spaces, and if you have a view to a green field or a parking lot. We can measure amount of green areas around your home from maps and satellites. Then we look into whether there are just a few trees nearby or a green park, where people can get physical activity. Another study looks at light at night and whether that can disturb sleep, leading to increased risk of breast cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. And we are also developing road traffic noise maps, distance to roads, to examine all of these factors effect on health and aging, individually and in a complex interaction with each other” she explains.
Noise Pollution is Harder to Measure
Noise pollution is more complex to measure than air pollution. There are different types of noise pollution. There’s environmental noise like road traffic, railroads, airports and wind turbines. That can be measured, but the affect on you also depends on how isolated windows you have, does your bedroom face busy road or quiet courtyard, and whether you are sensitive to noise or not. Then there is noise from neighbors, construction etc. which is much harder to measure.
She hopes the result of the Challenge project will be ground-breaking, as Denmark has so much valid historic register data compared to other countries, e.g. the US who depends on self-reported data, giving her unique possibilities to link environment to a number of health outcomes. And with Challenge’s data from human tissue – that is brain scans (link to Vera story) – the results can become completely unique in international context, she says.
When Environmental Data Becomes Personal
Pollution data becomes personal the second you match them with home addresses and hospitalization.
“We map all this data for the entire Danish population, as we have a full address history of four mio Danes. With this address history, we can – year by year – map every person’s concentration of air pollution, light at night, distance to green et cetera,” she explains.
Using personal data can be a privacy challenge, and here the university scientists are very aware:
“As researchers we always make sure, it is done properly. We use data that is pseudonomized and on secure servers, and we only look at patterns for the whole populaton – not at individuals.”
While anonymized data is data, that no one has a key to unlock, pseudonymized data has a key, so a few trusted people can go back and find the individuals behind the data.
“Further, our research stop at your front door, where we can estimate your exposure to air pollution, noise, green spaces, etc. We dont get the data from inside you home and don’t know what is your indoor exposure – if you smoke, use candles or have a fireplace. And we don’t measure your air pollution intake, if you sit in heavy road traffic everyday. So it is far from the full exposure, we have.”
What You Can Do?
Physical activity is so beneficial that it outweighs any air pollution considerations. Therefore it is better to run around the lakes than not to run. But if you have a choice to exercise in the park in stead of at a polluted street, then do it, she says:
“If we had a serious chronic disease in the family, I would like to be informed about the risks related to air pollution, and consider whether i wold move to less polluted location for health concerns. This is a personal consideration and choice. But in general, if you and your family are healthy then you should not worry about air pollution in your daily life.”
“Still, we advise people to avoid or reduce air pollution exposure, if possible, for example by choosing a less busy street, when you are biking or running. If not possible, it is still better to run or take your bike to work than to stay inactive, since you still get exposed to air pollution, if you are taking your car or a bus, or you stay home on your sofa. The personal risk to get a disease from air pollution is quiet small compared to smoking a pack of cigarette. So, if you are worried about your health, start exercising, eat healthy and stop smoking.”