Living near the highway may shorten the daily commute, but it may also up the risk of heart disease, according to new research.
One recent study suggested that living near a highway was associated with an increased risk of dying from sudden cardiac death. The second showed the proximity to a highway is associated with increased high blood pressure. Both studies were done with women subjects.
“I think there are many reasons to not live near highways,” said Russell Luepker, M.D., Mayo professor at the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota. “The association between air pollution and cardiovascular disease is clear.”
The first study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, reported that living close to a major road increased a woman’s risk of dying from sudden cardiac death as much as smoking, diet or obesity.
Sudden cardiac death is when the heart suddenly stops beating, most commonly from sudden cardiac arrest, causing death within minutes.
Living 164 feet from a major road increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 38 percent, compared to living 10 times farther away, researchers said. The risk increased 6 percent for every 328 feet closer the women lived to roadways.
“It’s important for healthcare providers to recognize that environmental exposures may be under-appreciated risk factors for diseases such as sudden cardiac death and fatal coronary heart disease,” said Jaime E. Hart, Sc.D., lead study author and instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.
Researchers used data from more than 107,000, predominantly white women, average age 60, who were part of the Nurses’ Health Study from 1986-2012.
Living near a highway may also affect blood pressure, according to the other study.
For 5,400 post-menopausal women in the San Diego area, living near a major roadway was associated with a higher risk of high blood pressure, according to the study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
The risk was 22 percent higher for women who lived 328 feet from a highway, compared to those who lived at least 3280 feet – 0.3 miles – away. The risk rose the closer the women lived to roadways.
“I think in the United States this study does tip the scale in favor of being concerned about the urban environment and how we develop our cities and our transportation systems,” said Gregory Wellenius, study author and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. “There are a lot of new developments going up right near highways. One has to start thinking about what are the associated health effects with that.”
Researchers suspect that fine particles in the air are to blame for the effect of highways on heart health, but they don’t know for sure what’s causing the increases in high blood pressure or sudden cardiac death.
Wellenius suggests that homebuyers and community planners consider health risks before placing housing developments near major roadways. That is an idea Luepker supports.
“The whole planned housing arena is a growing one and it’s a constant battle between city planners and developers, said Luepker, who is also an American Heart Association spokesperson. “People are talking about this for both physical health and mental health reasons.”
Despite the evidence, the risks of living near roadways doesn’t seem to be influencing home-buyers’ decisions, said real estate experts.
Noise, lights and traffic congestion are the top concerns about living near major roadways, according to Kurt C. Kielisch, president and senior appraiser of the Forensic Group, Ltd., in Neenah, Wisconsin. Although a small percentage of people may report being concerned about pollution, they typically don’t break down all the reasons they don’t want to live near a highway, Kielisch said.
Most house hunters don’t express concerns about pollution when looking for a new home, said realtor Rochelle Fitzgerald, founder of Luxury by Fitzgerald. She said “there’s a buyer for every property,” and those who buy homes near freeways are typically career-minded and want easy access to work.
People accustomed to loud, urban environments are the least concerned about living near a major roadway, Fitzgerald said. “I’ve had buyers that have been like, ‘I’ve grown up near a highway and the hum of the road puts us to sleep,’” Fitzgerald said. “Or, ‘we’ve lived in New York City or LA, when we come down here that’s just not a big deal to us.’”
Luepker suggests that people put their health -- and their children’s health -- first.
“There’s growing evidence that living near highways is harmful to your health,” Luepker said. “There are advantages to transportation and nearness to whatever but by and large you buy some problems with that,” Luepker said. “Would you rather live on a lake or next to a highway?”