On Earth Day, we take a moment to consider how our actions impact the Earth; however, it’s also important to take note of how the environment can affect aging.
The Environmental Protection Agency states that its mission is “to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment,” going on to clarify that this means focusing effort on older Americans because the older population will grow to over 70 million by 2030, and aging bodies have been exposed to more environmental contaminants over time and are more susceptible to environmental hazards. According to the EPA, some common environmental hazards that impact the health of older Americans are climate change, lead, mercury, ozone gas, particle pollution, pesticides, temperature extremes, and water contaminants.
Medical research has also found that environmental factors play a role in most Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease cases. Exposure to toxic chemicals and other environmental pollutants can change biochemical pathways that affect the risk of developing these diseases and other chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
The Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging resource dives deeper into environmental risk factors in developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. They found that exposure to environmental chemicals and infectious materials interact with other lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical activity, social interaction, education, socioeconomic factors, and active intellectual stimulation. The research also notes that, with specific regards to brain disease, many environmental chemicals increase oxidative stress (which is when the body is unable to counteract or detoxify the harmful effects of free radicals) and inflame the brain, increasing the risk of neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. Environmental chemicals (such as lead and other heavy metals, organic pollutants, and pesticides) can also strike earlier in life by altering brain development, which increases the risk of later developing a brain disease. Finally, recent evidence suggests that air pollution affects brain inflammation and the risk of a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s.
On a more uplifting note, there are ways to improve the environment and thus, our population’s chances at healthy aging. Because humans and the environment are so interconnected, living a healthy lifestyle means living well for yourself and for the environment. A healthy individual helps improve the environment, and vice versa. Humans can buy organic and chemical-free products, choose to purchase local and sustainable food, use clean, renewable energy, and decrease fossil fuel consumption. Making small changes in your lifestyle will benefit both the environment and your health, allowing you to age at home in a healthy manner.