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Adults living in areas with high air pollution are more likely to have multiple long-term health conditions

Exposure to traffic related air pollution is associated with an increased likelihood of having multiple long-term physical and mental health conditions according to a new study of more than 364,000 people in England.

Led by researchers from Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, this is the largest study worldwide to examine whether air pollution exposure is linked with the occurrence of multiple long-term health conditions.

Multimorbidity is defined as having two or more physical or mental health conditions and affects 27 per cent of adults in UK primary care. It increases the use of healthcare services and the costs of primary and secondary care, but its association with air pollution has not been studied in the UK until now.

Published in Frontiers in Public Health the study showed that high levels of traffic-related air pollution — fine particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — were associated with an increased risk of having at least two long term health conditions. The strongest associations were observed for co-occurring neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular and common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

This research was funded by National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) South London.

Dr Amy Ronaldson, Research Associate at Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London and first author on the study said: “People with more than one long-term health condition have a lower quality of life and greater dependence on the healthcare system. Our NIHR funded research has indicated that those people that live in areas of higher traffic-related air pollution are at greater risk of having multiple health conditions. The study does not prove that air pollution causes multimorbidity, but it does warrant further research in this area. It could be that simple measures to reduce traffic levels could potentially improve lives and lessen the pressure on our healthcare systems.”

Researchers analysed data from UK Biobank — a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing anonymised genetic, lifestyle and health information from half a million UK participants. aged between 40 and 69 years. Participants were assessed for 36 physical and five mental health chronic conditions. Multimorbidity was defined as having two or more of these conditions.

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