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article imageEssential science: Link between heart disease and climate change

By Tim Sandle     Feb 4, 2019 in Science
It may not seem the most immediate connection, but new medical research has drawn a connection between climate change and an increase in the proportion of babies born with heart defects.
The new research focuses on the U.S. and it looks at the number of babies born with congenital heart defects and extrapolates the findings over a twenty-year period.
Congenial heart disease
Congenital (meaning ‘from birth’) heart disease is a general term for a range of birth defects that affect the normal way the heart works. Symptoms of the condition range from none to life-threatening. Symptoms present can include rapid breathing, bluish skin, poor weight gain, and feeling tired. The main medical risk is where complications that can result from heart defects include heart failure.
Further information about congenital heart disease is summarized in the following video:
Connecting climate change
The new research predicts that the U.S. could see up to 7,000 additional cases, projected to occur over an eleven year-period in eight states (Arkansas, Texas, California, Iowa, North Caroline, Georgia, New York and Utah). This level would be additional to the 40,000 newborns that are born with congenial heart disease each year.
The study findings are intended to demonstrate the varied (and serious) ways by which climate change impacts upon human health. With the specific case, increased temperatures have been shown to impact upon pediatric heart disease, specially causing structural heart malformations.
The data drawn for the study was based on NASA climate change forecast data plus information provided by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The analysis of these data were then applied to specific areas of the U.S. where expecting mothers would be exposed to the highest levels of heat.
MODIS-aqua satellite view of the smoke from the #KingFire across the Sacramento valley and adjacent ...
MODIS-aqua satellite view of the smoke from the #KingFire across the Sacramento valley and adjacent foothills.
Most climate change and health studies have focused on studies frequently focus on common diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. By looking at congenial heart disease, the researchers have focused on a new area of medical inquiry.
Variables used included the expected number of excessively hot days; the frequency of extreme heat events; and the duration of extreme heat events. This analysis was then combined with previous data that drew a connection between heat exposure and congenial heart disease. The final stage of the analysis provided a predictive model to show how rising temperatures from climate change affect maternal heat exposure and how this can lead to more cases of congenial heart disease (expected between 2025 and 2035). The areas most likely to be affected in the U.S. are the Midwest, Northeast, and South.
Research implications
Commenting on the research findings, lead scientist Dr. Shao Lin states in conversation with website Laboratory Roots: “Our findings underscore the alarming impact of climate change on human health and highlight the need for improved preparedness to deal the anticipated rise in a complex condition that often requires lifelong care and follow-up.”
She adds further about the research implications: “It is important for clinicians to counsel pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant on the importance of avoiding extreme heat, particularly 3-8 weeks post conception, the critical period of pregnancy."
Research publication
The research has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, with the research paper titled “Projected Changes in Maternal Heat Exposure During Early Pregnancy and the Associated Congenital Heart Defect Burden in the United States.”
Essential Science
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Knee X-ray
Hellerhoff via Wikipedia
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week the subject was a study that shows how machine learning can be applied to reduce the amount of time needed to process abnormal chest X-rays. The system was developed through reviewing thousands of medical images.
The week before the topic was the potential for lab-grown meat, that is meat grown in cell culture instead of inside animals – what is referred to as 'cellular agriculture'.
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