Ask the Doctors by Eve Glazier, M.D. and Elizabeth Ko, M.D

Air Pollution Can Have Adverse Health Effects on the Elderly

Dear Doctor: I'm 84 and live in a big city. I try to walk as many places as I can, but I've read that air pollution may shorten the lifespan of seniors. Should I stay inside instead?

Dear Reader: As we enter our later years, we become increasingly vulnerable to health issues like chronic illness and infection, and to the negative effects of environmental factors like air pollution. At the same time, our immune systems are changing. As they become less robust, we lose the ability to respond to and recover from adverse conditions.

You are correct that studies have found a direct correlation between the degree of outdoor air pollution in a particular location and the lifespans of the individuals who live there. While air pollution affects people of all ages -- it's connected to at least 3.7 million premature deaths per year worldwide -- it's particularly hard on the elderly and the very young. In older individuals, it has been shown to exacerbate the effects of chronic disease and respiratory tract infections.

Outdoor air pollution is generated by emissions from traffic, factories and other industries, power generation, wood-burning fireplaces, wildfires, wind-blown dust and particulates, which are minute solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air. Ongoing exposure to outdoor air pollution has been tied to the increased incidence of conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Researchers now have evidence that long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution can have an adverse effect on both heart and lung function in otherwise healthy individuals.

That's quite a bit of somewhat dire information, so we're happy to follow it up with steps you can take to reduce the risks of both indoor and outdoor air pollution, no matter where you live.

Let's start with your concerns about walking outdoors. We believe that the physical and mental health benefits of physical activity are significant enough that you should make every effort to stick to your fitness routine. If you have internet access, you can check on the air quality in your city each day at This information is also provided in many television and radio weathercasts. When conditions are right and you do go walking, steer clear of the busier streets and avenues. Find quiet streets with minimal traffic for your walks. And remember to always wear sunscreen. Using an umbrella or parasol for shade and added coolness can also be a good idea.

When air quality is less than optimal, your instincts are correct -- you should limit your time outdoors. And though we've focused on air quality, it's important to be aware of the dangers that heat poses to elderly individuals. On days with high temperatures, take your walk in the early morning. When it's already too warm in the morning, stay inside near a fan or an air conditioner. And if your home is too warm, please take advantage of your local senior citizen center, or the cooling stations that most cities make available to residents during heat waves.

(Send your questions to, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)