Heart specialist

Notes from a heart specialist on the impact of global warming on our health and well-being

This week horrific and deadly tornadoes plagued my home state of Tennessee killing at least 89 people in five states.

Experts are studying how causally these storms were linked to rising temperatures, but deadly tornadoes do occur more often in areas of the country like my hometown where they were once rare.

Indeed, here in Nashville, the environment and the climate are changing; scientists saw a measurable increase in number and intensity of tornadoes over the past 40 years.

The tragic storms of the past weekend show the impact nature can have on our economy and our physical, mental and emotional well-being. We can no longer ignore that the climate and our environment are directly linked to our health. Valuing our health also means valuing healthy ecosystems.

Perspectives from a Cardiac and Pulmonary Expert

Professionally, from my perspective as a cardiologist and pulmonologist, the science is clear. Climate change is accelerating heart and lung disease, leading to a higher burden of morbidity and mortality.

The numbers are staggering and the scientific evidence is irrefutable. it has been a long time documented that the pollution released into the environment by human activity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. the Global Burden of Disease Study estimates that pollution caused at least 9 million deaths worldwide in 2019, 62% of which were due to cardiovascular diseases, including ischemic heart disease and stroke.

In addition, the rise in temperatures resulting from climate change amplify the damage of air pollution on heart, vascular and lung health in various interconnected ways. Extreme temperatures and temperature variability are associated with increased mortality from stroke and myocardial infarction.

Higher temperatures also to augment formation of ground-level ozone. And, they increase the likelihood of forest fires and windstorms, both of which produce fine particles that directly damage the lungs and heart. With higher temperatures there is more use of electricity, which leads to greater use of fossil fuels, producing more and more pollution, and the destructive cycle continues.

What else do we know

The macro-level policy decisions we make regarding climate change, nationally and globally, impact the health of people everywhere. We cannot continue to protect our eyes and hope that this will go away without action.

Our reluctance to cut emissions and inability to have non-partisan conversations only exacerbates health problems and delays healing. Increased air pollution and allergens lead to respiratory distress and disease; floods, forest fires and tornadoes cause injury and death; extreme temperatures lead to heat stroke and hypothermia; and all of these stressors impact our mental and emotional health.

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the state of climate change on Earth. Since its inception in 1988, the IPCC has published six assessment reports, including the most recent, and each report has been more alarming than the last. This sixth report, drawn from 14,000 peer-reviewed studies, determined, for the first time, an unequivocal causal relationship between humans and our warming planet.

The report confirmed what has long been suspected: Climate change is a grim reality that we can no longer afford to ignore. It requires immediate attention and action. Now it’s a question of when – not if – we start to see the consequences of our greenhouse gas emissions, and the report suggests that we are starting to experience the ramifications.

What used to be considered one-off natural disasters, for example, are becoming more and more frequent. Melting arctic regions and rising sea levels are putting scientists on high alert. Dry and wet regions continue to move towards their extremes. Some of the impacts of climate change are felt at the individual level.

Why should we pay attention to climate change? Because it matters to me and to you, especially when we look through the lens of its impact on health. It is time for us to come together to discuss and address the impact we have on our environment, if not for our planet then for our health, and if not for ourselves then some for others.