Adverse effects of outdoor pollution in the elderly
With fewer newborns and people living longer, older people are making up an increasing fraction of the total population. Epidemiological evidence shows that older-age-related health problems affect a wide and expanding proportion of the world population. One of the major epidemiological trends of this century is the rise of chronic diseases that affect more elderly than younger people. A total of 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012 are attributable to outdoor air pollution; the susceptibility to adverse effects of air pollution is expected to differ widely between people and within the same person, and also over time. Frailty history, a measure of multi-system decline, modifies cumulative associations between air pollution and lung function. Moreover, pre-existing diseases may determine susceptibility. In the elderly, due to comorbidity, exposure to air pollutants may even be fatal. Rapid and not-well-planned urbanization is associated with high level of ambient air pollution, mainly caused by vehicular exhausts. In general, there is sufficient evidence of the adverse effects related to short-term exposure, while fewer studies have addressed the longer-term health effects. Increased pollution exposures have been associated with increased mortality, hospital admissions/emergency-room visits, mainly due to exacerbations of chronic diseases or to respiratory tract infections (e.g., pneumonia). These effects may also be modulated by ambient temperature and many studies show that the elderly are mostly vulnerable to heat waves. The association between heat and mortality in the elderly is well-documented, while less is known regarding the associations with hospital admissions. Chronic exposure to elevated levels of air pollution has been related to the incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis (CB), asthma, and emphysema. There is also growing evidence suggesting adverse effects on lung function related to long-term exposure to ambient air pollution. Few studies have assessed long-term mortality in the elderly. It is still unclear what are the pollutants most damaging to the health of the elderly. It seems that elderly subjects are more vulnerable to particulate matter (PM) than to other pollutants, with particular effect on daily cardio-respiratory mortality and acute hospital admissions. Not many studies have targeted elderly people specifically, as well as specific respiratory morbidity. Most data have shown higher risks in the elderly compared to the rest of the population. Future epidemiological cohort studies need to keep investigating the health effects of air pollutants (mainly cardiopulmonary diseases) on the elderly.