Climate Change Linked to Cardiovascular Risk Increase

August 31, 2020
Jonathan Alicea

Studies have shown that heat-related cardiovascular events have increased over recent years.

Various studies have suggested that individuals who are vulnerable to cardiovascular events are at increasing risk due to climate change and rising global temperatures.

In the past decades, scientists have noted gradual elevations in global and land temperatures. In fact, recent years in Europe have seen the warmest temperatures since 1980 as well as an increased probability of extremely hot days.

In her presentation given at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC 2020), Annette Peters, Ph.D., Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health, discussed the intersections of these worrisome trends with cardiovascular risk.

The focus of her lecture centered around the questions, “What does extreme heat mean for the cardiovascular system, and what are the health hazards for that?”

Pointing to the 2003 European heat wave, she showed that the estimated deaths exceeded 30,000, which was the highest death toll from a natural hazard in 50 years.

“While heat strokes are difficult to record on death certificates, many of the people died of myocardial infarction or heart exhaustion,” Peters noted. “[It was] a large death toll with a variety of cardiovascular disease mortality [and] underlying causes.” 

Furthermore, she demonstrated how heatwave exposure events have increased dramatically over recent years.

Another study comparing heat-related cardiovascular risk in this century with preceding decades showed that individuals with underlying diabetes or hyperlipidemia are at elevated risk for myocardial infarction during hot days.

Additionally, the occurrence of myocardial infarction during warmer months has generally become more prominent than in previous years.

According to Peters, these findings are especially troubling since the data reflected individuals living in temperate climates.

She also noted that if temperatures continue to rise within the next century, even exceeding the Paris Agreement goal of 2° C elevation, then we could expect hotter summers and a higher rate of non-ST segment myocardial infarctions.

The lecture also addressed the cardiovascular burden caused air pollution and its interaction with air temperature.

Data from Italy reported an association between high air pollution and a higher excess of mortality rates caused by cardiovascular disease on hot days. The link was much stronger in regions with even warmer climates.

And finally, Peters incorporated novel insight into climate change’s relationship with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the compounded burden it places on at-risk individuals for cardiovascular events.

“You may imagine that if this is now moving together, it’s really important to find those people who have the disease to abate the pandemic, but at the same be aware that there may be a greater burden in these times due to the heat effect,” Peters said.

She concluded by stressing the importance of addressing climate change and air pollution while simultaneously protecting those whose age, cardiovascular health status, and socioeconomic status makes them especially vulnerable.