Date: May 1st, 2010
Headlines continue to be filled with news about how we are “pre-programmed” for disease, but our genes are not the only things putting us at risk. When it comes to age-related chronic diseases, major risk factors like genetics, age, gender, and environmental factors appear to interact to cause disease.
Our environment not only includes the natural world, but by many definitions also includes the physical, social, and cultural contexts in which we live. The air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, places we live, and chemicals we’re exposed to can also impact our health and our risk of disease. Beginning in the womb and continuing throughout our lifetimes, environmental factors play a role in setting the stage for later-life health and disease.
Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, a recent report from the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Science and Environmental Health Network, explains how environmental factors may influence the development of a number of chronic illnesses. The bad news is that our environment could be making us sick. The good news is there’s a lot we can do about it.
Putting Us at Risk for Disease
Environmental factors are believed to influence health across the lifespan by altering basic biological processes and pathways that, over time, increase (and even decrease) our risk of age-related diseases and conditions. One process that is believed to play a role in many diseases is inflammation—the process where the body’s immune system responds to injuries and infections. This important process fires up a vital defense response to “invaders” like bacteria and allergens; but can continue over long periods of time and increase risk of chronic diseases. Scientists are increasingly finding that inflammation is involved in atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, diabetes, and more.
Oxidative damage is another process linked to many of the same chronic diseases. It is caused by the interaction of “free radicals”—unstable molecules that are a byproduct of oxygen metabolism (happening in our bodies constantly!)—with other molecules in our bodies. The body defends itself with antioxidants, but there’s often not enough to neutralize all of the free radicals and prevent damage. Some areas of the body, like the brain, are particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage because of high oxygen consumption, low levels of antioxidants, and particularly susceptible molecules.
While many relationships between the environment and health are still being understood, others are better defined. For example, researchers are finding a strong link between pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s disease. Air pollution may contribute to inflammation of the brain and the risk of neurological diseases. Repeat exposure to UV rays from the sun is linked to skin cancer. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential environmental threats to our health. Poor air quality, polluted water, pesticides in our food, lead in our homes, junk food in our schools, and even changing social interactions are part of the environment that could be making us sick.
- Fortunately there’s a lot we can do to reduce our risk and stay healthy. While a lot of things need to change on a federal, state, and local level, there’s also a lot we can do as individuals to avoid the negative impacts of the environment and harness nature’s power of prevention:
- Eat healthy—this means eating foods high in antioxidants, low in saturated and trans fats and refined carbohydrates, and full of important vitamins and minerals
- Buy local and organic—these foods are usually lower in chemicals and higher in nutrients
- Stay active—getting regular exercise can ward off disease by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation
- Limit exposure—avoid potentially toxic chemicals and pollutants by choosing “green” cleaners, making sure the water you drink is clean, and learning about chemicals in your everyday life
- Stay intellectually and socially engaged—both can significantly lower your risk of mental decline
- Wear sun block—sun block and protective clothes can reduce damage from the sun’s harmful rays
- See your doctor regularly—your doctor and other health care professionals can help you prevent disease and manage existing illnesses
- Expose yourself to “green”—science is finding that nature can help heal our bodies and our minds so spend some time outdoors
Despite what seems like a long list of factors setting us up for an old-age filled with disease and disability, there are a number of things we can do to fight back and stay healthy. In fact, a healthy lifestyle has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 83%, and type 2 diabetes in women by as much as 91%. Remember, although aging starts at birth, it’s never too late to make sure your environment is keeping you healthy.