Traffic, Fireworks, Pastizzi and Heart Health

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cardiovascular diseases, particularly heart attacks and strokes, are the number one cause of death, globally. They go on to state that most of these diseases can be prevented by addressing risk factors, such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, diabetes and raised lipids. Although better drugs and less smoking have helped improve trends, cardiovascular diseases, remain the main cause of death in most European countries. Sadly, obesity is on the rise in Europe.

Health professionals, and society in general, have the tendency to put the blame on the individual for heart disease. People are advised to stop smoking, to exercise, to eat a healthy and balanced diet, to watch their weight and to control their blood pressure. But we often tend to forget that the environments in which we live, work and play can have a huge effect on our ability to make the right choices for our heart health.

Just think of Malta. This country is not exactly conductive to a healthy lifestyle, although some efforts are being made to improve this. Try riding a bike to work, or walk it and you will very likely have to deal with heavy traffic. This certainly discourages physical activity and encourages sedentary habits.

There are also very few open spaces which are free from environmental toxins and pollutants. It is mostly an urban environment that hinders the ability to be physically active outdoors. We do have small areas dedicated to a few swings and slides, but I am talking about parks, real green spaces with walking trails, fresh air and nature which the whole family can enjoy during their leisure time.

Many of us live in apartments with stairs or even stairs leading to the lift making it difficult to even go out for a walk with a pram. Uneven, broken pavements are everywhere. Bicycle lanes often suddenly disappear in the middle of a busy road and frequent potholes are also not conductive of an active lifestyle.

Greasy, artery clogging snacks can be bought at an extremely cheap price and are eaten as a quick and convenient meal. In fact, we have pastizzi shops [filo pastry filled with ricotta or peas] on practically every corner in some locations. They are cheaper and more accessible than fruit and vegetables. Every gathering or party tends to include these types of foods.

Both first hand smoke and second hand smoke increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and yet, we allow smoking in open areas, such as San Anton Gardens. Even though regulations are in place to ban smoking indoors and in places such as bars and clubs, there is not enough enforcement of the rules. At least, there is a ban on smoking in children’s playing fields.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA) scientific statement entitled Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease and published in 2010,fossil fuel combustion from industry, traffic and power generation are the major sources of the fine particulate matter found in outdoor pollution.

According to the World Heart Foundation’s website it appears that within hours to days of increased exposure, air pollution can trigger cardiovascular events in those who are at risk, even if they appear to be healthy. It can trigger cardiovascular-related deaths, as well as non-fatal events, such as heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and irregular heartbeats.

Whether you love them or loathe them, it has been well documented that fireworks, one of our most popular traditions, emit large quantities of particulate matter, including soot, ash and metals. Particulate matter has been consistently associated with cardiovascular disease development and progression. The bangs and colourful displays leave their mark on air quality for some time after the display ends. Although firework-related pollution episodes are temporary, each episode is highly concentrated, and contributes significantly to total annual metal emissions. The emissions are, on average, fine enough to be easily inhaled and a health risk to susceptible individuals. However, we all know that this can be quite a controversial subject and one which is not easily solved.

I am sure that you would agree with me when I say that the air we breathe and our environment should not pose a serious threat to our health. However, more education on the risk factors for heart disease and stroke is certainly required.

The latest catch phrase in Maltese social media circles is ‘live and let live’ if anybody dares to challenge tradition or our way of life. But it is high time that we start evaluating our priorities. Our health and that of our children should be our main concern.

29th September, 2014 is World Heart Day which is organised by the World Heart Foundation. This year’s slogan is Heart Choices NOT Hard Choices. This day is dedicated to exposing how much our environments can impact and increase cardiovascular disease risk factors. The Foundation states that the rise in cardiovascular disease in low- and middle-income countries has been linked to progressive urbanisation and the globalisation of unhealthy lifestyles which are facilitated by urban life.

Let’s all become more aware. Let’s educate our younger generation and try to live in an environment which helps them to make the right choices for a healthier life.

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