June 9th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman
Enduring traffic can be more than a little stressful.
From rude drivers, to constant stop and go, to accidents that inevitably tie up major thoroughfares, it’s all some of us can do to keep our tempers from flaring and taking our frustrations out on everyone around us—like that guy who just cut us off or the driver who squeezed in at the front of the line where the road narrowed.
But no matter how badly you’re tempted, don’t do it. In fact, don’t do anything but try to relax while sitting in heavy traffic. Not only could you risk your health if you do otherwise; you could also risk drastically raising your health and auto insurance rates.
How? According to a new German study, traffic can be heartbreaking. The pollution and exhaust we breathe while backed up on the freeway seems to exact a heavy toll on our health.
Combine that with increased stress levels, concentrated emissions and amplified noise, and research now shows our risk of heart attack soars to more than three times the norm for up to an hour after sitting in heavy traffic.
How do we know? Researchers at the Institute of Epidemiology in Munich, Germany, interviewed 1,454 people who waded through traffic and then suffered a heart attack within 60 minutes.
The study tracked what participants did the day of the heart attack, where they went, their means of transportation and the amount of time they spent in traffic.
Analysis and follow-up showed their risk of heart attack multiplied 3.2 times normal rates.
Of course, those in poor health, the elderly and children topped the list of those at greatest risk. But even more puzzling: traffic proved five times more dangerous to women than men. It will take some work to find out why.
Drivers weren’t the only ones affected, either. Bus and bicycle riders suffered just as much, leading researchers to suspect a strong pollution/heart attack connection.
Annette Peters, PhD, who led the study, says, “One potential factor could be the exhaust and air pollution coming from other cars. But we can’t exclude the synergy between stress and air pollution that could tip the balance.”
Efforts are now underway to try and determine the effect various elements have on humans sitting in traffic. Meanwhile, until results are more conclusive, you might want to try taking “the road less traveled,” to borrow a phrase—and avoid heavy traffic whenever possible.