It is estimated that elderly people spend more than 90% of their time indoors. The prevalence of chronic health conditions among seniors can be aggravated by indoor air pollution, which can be two to five times worse than outside air pollution. Because they are more susceptible to the effects of pollution, this can lead to using more medications, consulting with doctors more often, and being admitted to hospitals and emergency rooms more frequently. In 2019, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and other diseases linked to air pollution contributed to 60,229 deaths in the United States. A majority of these deaths (more than 95%) happened to people aged 50 and older. 

It is important for the elderly and immunocompromised to live in a healthy environment with good air quality, whether they are in an assisted living facility or even at home. The first step is to identify what common indoor pollutants can harm the elderly the most and where they can be found inside the home.

#1: Particulate Matter

A range of adverse health effects has been linked to exposure to fine particulates – or substances with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. In the elderly, lung impairment is the most critical symptom, which can lead to premature death. It is particularly alarming to inhale fine particulate matter since it can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. As a result, these particles may end up in virtually any organ in the body and affect lung function, exacerbate asthma and trigger heart attacks among others.

Across the United States, a landmark study found that even low levels of dust and other fine particulates can cause death in older people and that reducing the level of PM2.5 can save a substantial number of lives.

PM2.5 is produced by many everyday activities in the home such as cooking, cleaning, and burning combustible materials (such as unvented space heaters, fireplaces, candles, and smoking). 

#2: Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs)

VOCs can cause a decline in lung function in elderly people due to systemic oxidative stress. An excess of free radicals in the body causes oxidative stress, which damages cells, proteins, and DNA in the body. This can speed up aging and cause a variety of health problems:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Asthma
  • Neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure, artherosclerosis and stroke

Common examples of VOCs that can be present indoors are: toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, xylene, and tetrachlorethylene. VOCs are emitted into the air from building materials and furnishings such as paint, varnishes, carpets, vinyl flooring, upholstery, foam. They are also typically present in home and personal care products such as air fresheners, cosmetics and cleaning products. 

#3 Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

Nitrogen dioxide is another indoor pollutant that is harmful to the elderly. In older adults, long-term exposure to NO2 can lead to severe respiratory deterioration, which can cause death. Among older adults living in China, a multi-city study found a strong association between NO2 exposure and asthma and COPD progression. As with PM2.5, this gaseous pollutant also accelerates the production of free radicals, which are linked to cognitive decline and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  

NO2 can be produced by gas cooking, kerosene and propane space heating, indoor wood heating, and smoking. The primary source of NO2 in the outdoor environment that can affect the elderly is vehicle emissions, aside from industrial and commercial manufacturing.

Identifying the most common indoor pollutants that can affect the elderly is key to preventing and reducing their exposure. Staying on top of these pollutants is vital to ensuring that they have a safe and healthy environment, allowing them to breathe easier – and live longer.

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