Big Data Offers Big Insights into Links Between Environment, Heart Health

By Dr. Cavin Ward-Caviness, Principal Investigator (Computational Biologist), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ORD, NHEERL, EPHD, CRB

Note: This post originally appeared on the EPA blog.

Air Quality Awareness Week, April 29-May 3, is a perfect time to think about how far we have come in understanding how air pollution affects the cardiovascular system. As a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist studying heart disease, I am very excited about current and future research in this area. Though the burden of heart disease on our society remains high (see the American Heart Association 2018 Statistics on Heart Disease and Stroke), we have only to look at the promising lines of current, cutting-edge research to find reasons to be optimistic about the progress we are making in our understanding and treatment of heart disease.

Perhaps the biggest reason for my optimism is that we are increasingly aware of heart disease risk factors and are working to lower those risks. Importantly, we are beginning to fully appreciate the role that a healthy environment plays in maintaining a healthy heart.

The primary way air pollution impacts heart health is through cardiovascular complications. The EPA is a world leader in research designed to improve our understanding of the potential risk that air pollution poses to people with heart disease. I am optimistic that such research will lead to improved communication about environmental health and potentially even preventative treatment solutions.

One of the many cutting-edge research areas at the EPA is the use of electronic health records for environmental studies. This research relies entirely on the anonymous participation of patients who decide to advance science by allowing their medical records to be used for research. While many may think that their participation could lead to a new drug being developed, it also informs the role that the environment plays in heart health, which is just as important for saving and improving lives.

My lab has recently established the EPA Clinical and Archived records Research for Environmental Studies (CARES) resource to improve the EPA’s efforts to work with healthcare providers to enable air pollution research using electronic health records. With ongoing projects into environmental risks for heart attack survivors and those with heart failure, we are beginning to answer important questions about environmental health and the causes of complications, hospitalizations, and even death for patient communities that many of us, or our loved ones, belong to.

As we all use Air Quality Awareness Week to reflect on how we can improve heart health, let us focus our attention on how each of us can lead better, more heart healthy lives and our opportunities to contribute to life saving research. I am proud to be a part of the fight against heart and blood vessel disease. I am also truly optimistic about the heart health of our Nation as we better understand what makes a “heart healthy environment” and as we translate our understanding into actions and solutions for all Americans.

About the author: EPA computational biologist Cavin Ward-Caviness helps determine which populations are most susceptible to air pollution. His research focuses on understanding the impact of environmental or neighborhood factors, such as living in a neighborhood with lower socioeconomic factors, on health, and the biological pathways that link exposures and health.

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