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Links between climate and heart disease must be addressed

With many links between climate change and cardiovascular health, experts say a new specialty of “climate cardiology” is needed to protect patients and the future planet. Greenhouse gas emissions are the highest they have ever been as a result of human activities. This has prompted a rise in global temperatures and associated climate impacts, such as an increased severity of cardiovascular risk factors. 

Major sources of greenhouse gas emissions include fossil fuel burning, agriculture, deforestation and meat production. Globally, the healthcare sector is responsible for nearly 4.5 percent of emissions, as well as nearly 3 percent of fine particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5). In the US, alone, the healthcare sector emits nearly 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change leads to more frequent extreme weather events, air pollution, ecosystem collapse, and declines in global food production. All of these factors have direct effects on cardiovascular health, as well as indirect effects through other social determinants of health and the capacity of health systems to manage climate hazards, explained the authors.

  • In 2019 high temperatures were responsible for 93,000 cardiovascular deaths worldwide
  • Extreme weather events are linked to trauma, stress, and depression – all risk factors for coronary heart disease
  • Desertification, increased atmospheric CO2, and ocean warming and acidification affect nutritious food supplies:diets low in fresh produce, whole grains, and seafood are responsible for over 3 million cardiovascular deaths annually worldwide
  • Climate change may prompt the forced migrations of hundreds of millions of people, often to places ill prepared to provide cardiovascular health services
  • Air pollution from fossil fuel burning, industrial emissions, and landscape fires are responsible for nearly 1 in 5 (3.54 million) cardiovascular deaths globally

However, there are opportunities to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the global toll of cardiovascular disease. The authors suggest this can be done by transitioning to plant-based diets and restructuring food subsidies. Red meat, which contains high levels of saturated fat, is a major risk factor for heart disease, and is responsible for 738,000 cardiovascular deaths in 2019.

A shift to active transport is another opportunity, as walking and cycling promote physical activity while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions. To reduce stress, an expansion of green spaces in residential areas would also help absorb atmospheric CO2. 

Transitioning our economy away from coal, oil, and gas towards solar and wind power, geothermal energy, and hydroelectricity would save more than 20 million deaths over the next 30 years.

“The window is closing to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The healthcare sector must take urgent action to prevent the climate crisis from undermining cardiovascular health,” warned the study authors.

The carbon footprint of healthcare systems can be reduced by promoting telemedicine, local ambulatory and self care and by cutting down on overprescribing, and unnecessary interventions. The authors emphasize that investing in disaster planning and early warning systems could help health systems prepare for waves of illness associated with climate change impacts. Medical education could also incorporate environmental health and sustainable practices in healthcare. 

The research is published in the open access journal BMJ Global Health.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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