Living in different environments, such as urban, suburban, or rural, as well as the characteristics of those living environments, can significantly impact longevity. Additionally, environmental factors such as air quality and occupational hazards can also affect an individual’s overall health and well-being. This article discusses the impact that environment has on healthspan and lifespan and provides actionable guidance for individuals to improve their living conditions.
Air Quality, Green Spaces and More: The Impact of Living Environment on Longevity
Urban areas have higher population densities and are associated with higher levels of pollution, noise, and stress. These factors can negatively impact health and contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and respiratory problems (Adams et al., 2015). Additionally, urban areas often lack green spaces (areas of nature that have been found to reduce stress and improve objective health outcomes) and can limit access to fresh natural foods, recreational activities, and social support networks (Adams et al., 2015). A lack of access to these resources can lead to social isolation and depression, which can further harm health.
However, even with these challenges, urban dwellers are found to have longer lifespans than rural, mostly due to lower rates of cardiovascular disease, but also lower rates of drug use and access to better medical care (Abrams, L., et al., 2021)
In contrast, rural living provides a quieter, less polluted environment with more access to green spaces and healthy foods. However, rural areas often lack access to healthcare and social support networks, which can contribute to a lower quality of life and reduced lifespan (Singh et al., 2014). Rural areas also have higher rates of obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity, which can increase the risk of chronic diseases (Singh et al., 2014).
Suburban areas offer a good balance between the benefits and drawbacks of urban and rural living. Suburban areas often provide access to healthcare, recreational activities, greenspaces and social opportunities while also providing a quieter, less polluted environment than urban areas (Adams et al., 2015).
Good air quality is essential for maintaining respiratory health, and exposure to air pollution and allergens can increase the risk of respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (Kim et al., 2017). Air pollution can also impact cardiovascular health, contributing to heart disease and stroke (Brook et al., 2010). In fact, a publication produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) in 2021 shared that air pollution has a slightly greater impact on death than smoking, three-times greater impact than alcohol use or unsafe water, and five-times greater than HIV and AIDS. Specifically, they write:
“Measured in terms of life expectancy, ambient particulate pollution is consistently the world’s greatest risk to human health. First-hand cigarette smoke, for instance, reduces global average life expectancy by about 1.9 years. Alcohol use reduces life expectancy by 9 months; unsafe water and sanitation, 7 months; HIV/AIDS, 4 months; malaria, 3 months; and conflict and terrorism, just 7 days (see Figure 5). Thus, the impact of particulate pollution on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, almost three times that of alcohol and drug use and unsafe water, five times that of HIV/AIDS, and 114 times that of conflict and terrorism.”
Individuals can take steps to maintain good air quality by periodically cleaning air vents and filters and making sure to properly ventilate their homes, especially when cooking or using cleaning products that can release pollutants into the air. Purifying indoor air with HEPA filters and plants can also contribute to better long-term health. (Kim et al., 2017).
Occupational Hazards and Toxins
It’s well known that exposure to occupational hazards and toxins can have negative impacts on health, potentially leading to chronic diseases and other health issues (Mannino et al., 2018). It’s important to take necessary precautions and protective measures to minimize exposure and reduce risks. Individuals should discuss their concerns with their employers and seek guidance from relevant experts or authorities in their industry.
Impacts on Hallmarks of Aging:
Living in a polluted environment can negatively impact multiple hallmarks of aging, including mitochondrial dysfunction, cellular senescence, and inflammation (Zhang et al., 2021). Exposure to toxins can also impact genomic instability, stem cell exhaustion, and deregulated nutrient sensing (Mannino et al., 2018).
Air pollution can affect proteostasis, altered cellular communication, and epigenetic alterations, and has been linked to telomere shortening (Kim et al., 2017). Additionally, social isolation and lack of social support, which can occur at higher frequencies in rural and urban areas, can impact genomic instability and epigenetic alterations, two hallmarks of aging. Studies have shown that social isolation can lead to changes in gene expression and DNA methylation patterns, which can have negative health consequences (Cacioppo et al., 2015; Powell et al., 2013). In contrast, strong social connections have been shown to positively impact both physical and mental health (Umberson et al., 2010).
Fortunately, there are ways to combat social isolation. Joining local clubs or groups, volunteering, and participating in community events are all great ways to build social connections and support networks (Cacioppo et al., 2015). Additionally, technology has made it easier than ever to stay connected with friends and family who may live far away.
Environment, Pollution, and Longevity
The environment in which we live and work can have a significant impact on our healthspan and lifespan. While there are certain aspects of our environment that are beyond our control, there are many steps we can take to minimize our exposure to harmful toxins and pollutants and maximize our access to healthcare, social support, greenspaces, and other resources that promote health and longevity. By taking these steps, we can increase our chances of living long, healthy lives.
- Abrams, L., Myrskyla, M., Mehta, N. (2021). The growing urban-rural divide in US life expectancy: contribution of cardiovascular disease and other major causes of death. International Journal of Epidemiology, 50, 1970-1978.
- Cacioppo, J.T., Cacioppo, S., Capitanio, J.P., & Cole, S.W. (2015). The neuroendocrinology of social isolation. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 733-767. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015240
- Powell, N.D., Sloan, E.K., Bailey, M.T., Arevalo, J.M.G., Miller, G.E., Chen, E., Kobor, M.S., Reader, B.F., Sheridan, J.F., & Cole, S.W. (2013). Social stress up-regulates inflammatory gene expression in the leukocyte transcriptome via beta-adrenergic induction of myelopoiesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(41), 16574-16579. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1310655110
- Umberson, D., Montez, J.K., & Social Relationships, A.D. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54-S66. doi: 10.1177/0022146510383501
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