Academic journal article Generations

The Susceptibility of Older Adults to Environmental Hazards

Academic journal article Generations

The Susceptibility of Older Adults to Environmental Hazards

Article excerpt

Linking exposure, processing of contaminants in the body, and effects for health promotion.

Joan Flood represents nine communities in Pittsburgh's East End that have close to 20 percent of the city's older population. At a "public listening session on aging and the environment," part of a series sponsored by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Flood told the audience the following:

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, smog, and ground level ozone, especially those with a history of heart or lung problems. These facts are particularly problematic given that Allegheny County is among the dirtiest IO percent of all counties in the U.S. in terms of air quality and hazardous air pollutants, with one of the oldest populations in the country. U.S. EPA, 2003.

Flood was correct about the effects of air pollution on older adults. Older adults are vulnerable to the effects of environmental pollutants. What she did not say is that the demographics of Allegheny County will soon to be reflected in the rest of the country. By 2030, the 65-plus population in the United States will double to 70 million, 20 percent of Americans. In addition, the population of adults 85-plus is the most frail and the most rapidly increasing cohort, with a population of 4 million today increasing to 19 million by 2050. Most important, these increases are not a short-lived effect of the baby boomer generation, but are projected to be long-lasting features of American demographics. Even small effects on health have large public health and economic consequences when we consider the size of this population.

This rapid growth in the number of older Americans has many implications for public health, including the need to better understand the health risks posed by environmental exposures. Biological capacity declines with normal aging and with diseases of aging. This decline can result in compromised responses to environmental exposures encountered in daily activities, resulting in adverse health outcomes. The issue is broader than linking particular environmental exposures with particular health outcomes, however. To identify obstacles to and opportunities for physical and social activity that promotes healthy aging, we must consider where older adults live and how they interact with the environment.

How can we best address the risk that environmental hazards pose to the health of older adults? What data are needed for assessment and management of risk and for communication about risk to promote environmental health of older adults?

In recognition of these concerns and consistent with EPA's mandate to protect the health of vulnerable Americans, EPA developed a framework for a research program on aging and the environment (Geller and Zenick, 2005). The goal of the program is to conduct research to understand environmental health hazards that affect older adults, and to translate these research findings into practical regulatory actions and public health promotion and prevention strategies. Research initiated in this program is identifying key aging-related factors that contribute to variability in environmental exposures and responses to those exposures could result in adverse health outcomes.

To ensure that EPA's regulations and educational outreach programs promote the health of older Americans, the program is designed to answer the following questions:

* Where do older adults live, and what are the important pollution sources in those locations?

* What are the activities of older adults that bring them into contact with these pollutants?

* What happens to the pollutants once they enter the body? How does an external exposure turn into a "dose" at a target site like the heart or brain?

* What are the critical adverse health effects and adverse outcomes?

These questions can be arrayed along what has been called the Environmental Public Health Continuum (Figure 1). …

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