Climate Change is Going to Give You a Heart Attack

There has been a glut of news lately about the increasing severity of climate change, including this one reported just yesterday about the rise of sea temperatures. I have been thinking a lot about it, and while I have been concerned for decades (at least since I read Earth in the Balance back in the early 90s), this month I went to my first local chapter meeting of Citizens Climate Lobby. While we went around the room and shared our reasons for joining CCL, I was struck by how many of the people in the room mentioned the health ramifications of climate change.

If you think climate change is a hoax or isn’t going to affect you, I can’t help you. Clearly, you are “fact-challenged.” For the rest of us living in the reality-based world, the threats are real and imminent. The current administration, not exactly known for its embrace of science (or reality), published the second half of the Fourth National Climate Assessment 2017/2018 in November and while it is full of dire news, I’d like to focus on just the health aspects of climate change.

“Impacts from climate change on extreme weather and climate-related events, air quality, and the transmission of disease through insects and pests, food, and water increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable.”

Fourth National Climate Assessment 2017/2018

You can read the entire report online, and here’s a link to the health chapter, but in a nutshell climate change will expose us to extreme heat, poor air quality, reduced food and water quality, changes in infectious agents, and population displacement which in turn will create heat-related illness, cardiopulmonary illness, food/water/vector borne disease, and mental health and stress issues.


Figure 14.1 Climate Change and Health

Much of the cardiovascular health issues associated with climate change revolve around temperature changes. A recently published study from the University of Michigan suggests “climate change may lead to a significant uptick in heart attacks” because of dramatic changes in outdoor temperature. “Global warming is expected to cause extreme weather events, which may, in turn, result in large day-to-day fluctuations in temperature,” said Hedvig Andersson, MD, a cardiology researcher at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author. 

There are other studies that suggest the same, and I suspect we’ll soon be able to tie actual cardiovascular deaths directly to the effects of climate change. This is of particular interest to me, obviously because of my cardiovascular history, but also because I live in the desert where extreme heat and temperature fluctuations are part of the norm. Maybe I should move to a more temperate location? Oh wait, there may not be any temperate locations as climate change trudges on.

There are other heart-related consequences of climate change as well, such as the fact that increased ozone formation due to higher temperatures harms pulmonary gas exchange and causes stress on the heart and this is associated with heart attacks, increased particulate matter is associated with systematic inflammation, compromised heart function, deep venous thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and blood vessel dysfunction, and of course stress and anxiety is associated with heart attacks, sudden cardiac death, and stress-related cardiomyopathy. Extreme cold and extreme heat increase hospital admissions for heart-related disorders and disease, such as dysrhythmias and stroke.

Climate change is the single most important issue facing mankind. It has far-reaching consequences for the planet and civilization. But it occurred to me that we’re just talking about the tip of the iceberg when we talk about sea-level rise, extreme weather events, drought and even infectious disease. Dirty air alone creates havoc for those already struggling with cardiovascular disease, and when you add in stress and mass migration and all the rest, it may not matter if you have to leave your home in South Florida for higher ground because you might not survive the heat and ozone pollution.

I for one am tired of sitting on the sidelines when it comes to climate change. For too long I’ve used the excuse that I wasn’t sure how best to make an impact, and because of that I haven’t made any impact. You can lose your mind researching what we should do about climate change, but I no longer wish to be paralyzed by indecision about how to help. Rather, I’m going to do something — something tangible.

I get a shit ton of eNewsletters and news about climate change. Any given day I may receive a message from The Union of Concerned Scientists, or 350.org, or the Sierra Club. Here’s a great list of organizations fighting climate change. It’s overwhelming, but with the start of the new year, I decided to pick one and do what I can.

I joined Citizens Climate Lobby because it has a singular focus that is easy to get behind and you can make an impact no matter where you live. And while I am not 100 percent sure a carbon fee and dividend law is the best approach to solving this thing, it’s an approach, which is more than most organizations are doing.

There are a lot of ways to get involved with CCL, and at a minimum you can simply stay informed and share news with others. Sometime this month, CCL will reintroduce its bill, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, while it is a long shot to make it to law with the current administration at the helm, we may be able to get enough momentum to make it a priority early in the next administration.

In the meantime, there are other things we can all do. We can fight fracking and other methane emitting causes like factory farming, ride a bike instead of driving all the time, wash clothes in cold water, consume less, personally divest from investments in fossil fuels, and eat more meat-free meals, for example. The point is, everyone can (and should) do something. It’s no longer just your kids and grand kids lives that depend on it — your life depends on it too.

Snoring is Much More Than a Simple Nuisance

I ran across an article today with the hyperbolic headline “7 Warning Signs That You May Be at Risk of a Heart Attack.” I truly hate headlines like this because they almost always lead to nonscientific blather. This article, from Men’s Health, suggests you may want to be concerned if you are exhausted (who isn’t), have erectile dysfunction (if your blood vessels down there are damaged, there’s a good chance the ones near your heart could be damaged as well), you have leg or hip cramps (again, blood flow issues), you’re bloated (too many beers?), and a few other seemingly innocuous maladies. But one potential symptom caught my attention and should catch your attention too — snoring.

Look at this sexy guy sleeping sound with his CPAP machine!

Snoring may seem harmless, but it could mean you have sleep apnea and that could be a big problem. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts and that can have major consequences for your heart health. In fact, obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of heart failure by 140%, the risk of stroke by 60%, and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30%.

Let’s be honest, most of us snore once in a while or even all the time. The person who shares your bed has likely let you know you’re making noise with a late-night nudge or perhaps an occasional punch in the nose if it gets bad (kidding). You probably know if you snore, especially if you’ve ever woken yourself up from it. But you probably don’t know if you have sleep apnea unless you’ve been tested for it. A sleep apnea evaluation usually involves overnight monitoring at a sleep center although these days there are even some at-home sleep tests.

A few years prior to my heart attack my wife finally insisted I talk to my doctor about my snoring. Like a lot of people, I associated snoring with obesity and figured mine was just a minor case. But it had become so prevalent that oftentimes I’d wake up in the morning to find my wife sleeping on the sofa because I was keeping her up. I agreed to see my doctor about it, for her sake, but had I been paying more attention to the research I might have taken it a lot more seriously a lot earlier on.

There is a clear connection between sleep apnea and heart disease. Here’s a quote from an article on the American Heart Association’s website:

“The evidence is very strong for the relationship between sleep apnea and hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally, so people really need to know that.”

— Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

A Google search for “sleep apnea and heart disease” brings up tons of articles and links to studies that show a clear connection. Unfortunately for me, while I discovered my sleep apnea before I had a heart attack I didn’t know it was a potential symptom of heart disease and therefore it didn’t raise any suspicions that would have caused me to get my heart checked out in time.

When I had my sleep study it turned out I had an apnea event (literally stopped breathing) about 80 times per hour. Think about that for a minute. That is more than once per minute. Of course that is going to cause strain on the heart!

Here’s some information on sleep apnea event occurrences. Normal is fewer than 5 breathing events per hour of sleep. Mild sleep apnea: 5 to 14.9 breathing events per hour of sleep. Moderate sleep apnea: 15 to 29.9 breathing events per hour of sleep. Severe sleep apnea: 30 or more breathing events per hour of sleep.

I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and nobody told me it could be associated with heart disease so I didn’t immediately go get checked out by a cardiologist. That seems like malpractice, but if I’ve learned anything over the past decade it’s that we have to be our own health advocates because doctors are overworked and under-educated in terms of knowing the latest science.

I ended up with a C-PAP machine, which applies mild air pressure on a continuous basis to keep the airways continuously open while I sleep. I have adapted well to it and use it religiously, every night. I hate having to use it, but using it means I no longer stop breathing 80 times an hour. I get a better night’s sleep and frankly, I feel safer using it. It’s a pain to travel with, but someday I’ll spring for a travel-sized machine as well.

So yes, snoring can be a symptom of heart disease or an impending heart attack. Now that you know this, you have no excuse for not talking to your doctor about your snoring. Trust me, it just might save your life.

Regrowing Damaged Organs no Longer Stuff of Science Fiction

timeismuscleI have only one regret from my heart attack experience in 2011, and that is that I waited two days from the onset of symptoms to seek treatment. Aside from the fact that I very likely could have died during those 48 hours, the time I waited very likely caused more damage to my heart than if I had gone to the hospital right away. In the heart attack business, time is muscle.

It’s a sobering experience to hear your cardiologist say that part of your heart is dead, but that’s exactly what happens to your heart when oxygen is cut off. In my case, I lost about 15 percent of my heart muscle in the area at the lower left ventricle known as the apex. Because of this dead muscle, I have what the doctor calls left ventricular hypokinesis. Basically, it means my heart doesn’t contract as much as most people’s hearts resulting in a lower ejection fraction.

This means my heart doesn’t pump out as much blood as a normal heart, which is no big deal until it gets too low (an ejection fraction of 50 percent or lower is considered reduced) and if it gets down below 40 or so it means you are in heart failure. At the time of my heart attack my ejection fraction was around 35-40, but today it’s in the 55-60 range which is at the low end of normal. Lucky me.

Every cardiologist I’ve seen, and everything I’ve read, says heart muscle damage is permanent. But as college football broadcaster Lee Corso says — not so fast my friends!

Medical science is progressing at a breakneck speed. Just think about coronary stents for example. It seems like they’ve been around forever, but the first one was inserted into a human in 1986 (just 32 years ago). If I had the very same heart attack in 1985 I’d be walking around with a 90 percent blocked left anterior (LAD) descending artery (also known as the widowmaker) instead of having three stents. Or more than likely I’d be dead.

Which brings me to that dead heart muscle. This week in the magazine Nature I read about a new procedure that will be done on three patients in Japan. Doctors at Osaka University will take thin sheets of tissue derived from cells and graft them onto diseased human hearts. The team expects that the tissue sheets can help to regenerate the organ’s muscle when it becomes damaged.

If this works as it has in lab animals, these doctors will in effect reverse thousands of years of medical orthodoxy. Time may be muscle, but science is more powerful than current knowledge.

This experiment is part of a field known as regenerative medicine. Rejuvenating or regrowing human tissue has limitless possibilities for medical science, and while the field is in its infancy it feels like every day we hear about a new breakthrough. Just a few years ago scientists grew a complete human bladder outside the body, and we’re not very far from the ability to grow more complex organs to use for transplantation. How long before scientists can grow a human heart that can be used to replace failing ones? The stuff of “science fiction” is no longer outside the realm of possibility.

I recently read Never Let Me Go by Nobel Prize winner Kazou Ishiguro. Spoiler alert: it’s about clones who are created to harvest replacement organs. But given the direction of real science, the dystopian world laid out by Ishiguro will not be needed!

This is a long way of stating that I am grateful for medical science. In fact, science is the closest thing I have to a religion. I put my faith in regenerative medicine, CRISPR, biotechnology, immunology, and everything else that involves the scientific method. My heroes are scientists, doctors, and inventors. They bring me peace of mind and hope for the future.

My heart damage is probably not severe enough to warrant stem cell therapy or regenerative cell sheets. But it’s nice to know if things get worse for me, or as science continues to progress, my heart could easily be fixed. Permanently.

I ♥ science!

National Wear Red Day® is Friday, Feb. 2, 2018

Heart disease is the №1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. That’s approximately one woman every minute!

To spread awareness about heart disease in women, the American Heart Association invites you to wear red on Friday, Feb. 2 and share pictures on social media using the hashtag #WearRedDay

Learn more about women and heart disease on the Go Red For Women website.

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