Obesity risk in middle-aged women linked to air pollution in new study

Obesity is a condition affecting longevity that involves excessive body fat that raises the risk of health problems. It usually results from consuming more calories than what’s being burned by exercise and regular daily activities.

Obesity links to reduced life expectancy, largely because obese individuals are at increased risk of so many medical complications. It happens when an individual’s BMI (body mass index) is 30 and up. The primary symptom is excessive body fat, which raises the risk of severe health problems. Aside from cultural backgrounds, genetics, race and medical conditions, a new study found a possible link between air pollution and higher obesity in middle-aged women [1].

A new study on air pollution and obesity

The study, issued in the journal of the American Diabetes Association, reviewed information from 1,654 participants from SWAN (the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation). This looked into women’s health during the middle years of their life [2]. According to the study, participants had a median age of 49 and identified as White, Black, Chinese and Japanese.

In addition, the study revealed that the further air pollution the participants were exposed to, the higher their risk of developing obesity. Air pollution exposure was particularly linked to a higher proportion of fat, higher body fat and a lower lean body mass in women in their middle years. Women exposed to air pollution had an increased body fat of 4.5 per cent or around 2.6 pounds.

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The researchers also examined how physical activity and air pollution and directed body composition and found that elevated levels of physical activity were an excellent way to offset exposure to air pollution. Study lead author, Xin Wang is a University of Michigan School of Public Health research investigator in the Department of Epidemiology. He said that he and his team wanted to pinpoint and learn about modifiable risk factors, including exposures to environmental pollutants and help establish individuals who are at high risk for having obesity.

Wang added that it’s not shocking that air pollution may play a role in obesity development. Looking in the past, it is not difficult to find that the quick rise in obesity prevalence has followed the increasing exposure to environmental pollutants, he said. It’s also notable that research previously links exposure to air pollution, including fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, to surges in inflammation of fat tissue, along with a stack of other factors that are solidly linked to obesity.

Air pollution exposure and obesity risk

It’s easy to suspect that air pollution could raise a person’s chances of becoming obese because it keeps people indoors. Still, it’s more complex than that, according to an obesity medicine physician and clinical researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr Fatima Cody Stanford. Research shows that air pollution may lead to metabolic dysfunction [3]. This means it affects how how your body stores cholesterol and your metabolism. 

Air pollution also seems tied to chronic disease onset, whether obesity or diabetes. Although, when you have air pollution, it can disrupt regular physical activity, particularly in an outdoor setting, Stanford added. 

As for exercise helping to fight the impact of air pollution on weight, an emergency medicine physician from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Dr Mark Conroy said a correlating statement with the benefits of exercise in general. According to him, training has long been viewed as strongly associated with improved health and body composition. In people with high levels of inflammation, exercise can decrease those levels, enhance metabolism and promote fat loss, he added.

Stanford warns against blaming obesity on air pollution alone since obesity is a complex, multifactorial relapsing-remitting disease. Individuals with obesity may be suffering from it for various causes. 

For others, air pollution may be one of the elements that leads to some of the diseases that people have, but, for many, multiple factors play a role. Some examples of these are family history, medications and chronic stress.

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Stanford highlights that we need not single out one factor as being the reason people have obesity. Wang said that the study was done on a specific population, midlife women exposed to a particular range of air pollution (the median annual PM2.5 concentration ranged from 12.3 µg/m3 to 15.9 µg/m3). As a result, it’s impossible to conclude that the findings apply to everyone. 

However, their findings call for more studies to verify the association between air pollution and obesity, especially among those with high exposed populations. This will help decide if air pollution is a vital contributor to the epidemic of obesity and identify the foundation for future investigations for intervention plans.

Greenness exposure and obesity

The evidence from associate studies in developing economies has been limited regarding greenness exposure. A systematic review of 57 records studied the link between greenspace and being obese or overweight. 

The review found that most studies followed a cross-sectional design (81 per cent) and were conducted in developed countries (88 per cent). Some studies have recognised a significant negative association in the whole population or subgroups, such as children or women [4]. 

Other studies have not found an association or even a positive significant association. One Chinese cross-sectional study found that greenspace exposure had an inverse relationship with the odds of being obese overweight among Chinese adults.

A longitudinal analysis using data from the New England Family Study said that the average area of greenspace was not associated with the BMI of US adults. Some studies suggested that raising green levels may be one of the most efficient methods to reducing the risk of being overweight and obese in exposure to air pollution.

Of the recent studies on the link between greenness and air pollution on obesity, some have found a significant mediation of the association between PM2.5 and NO2 on greenness and obesity in adults or women only, and others found a similar association in children based on greenness around schools.

However, there is also evidence in opposition. For example, two studies in Spain and a northern Chinese city did not identify air pollutants as mediators of the greenness-obesity association. Further study is needed to explore the effects of air pollution and greenness on the risk of being overweight.

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[1] https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/overweight-and-obesity/factors-that-affect-weight
[2] https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article-abstract/doi/10.2337/dc22-0963/147568/Longitudinal-Associations-of-Air-Pollution-With?redirectedFrom=fulltext
[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41366-018-0089-y
[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935122016991

Photograph: New Africa/Shutterstock
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