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Climate and Health One Health: Climate Change Triggers Common Diseases

Rising temperatures accelerate processes: The simple rule of thumb taught in chemistry classes and known as reaction velocity-temperature-regulation, also applies in a broader sense to the effects of global warming on risk groups and sensitive individuals. Helmholtz Munich is targeting the four major common diseases known to be exacerbated by climate change: allergies, diabetes, and pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases. The researchers' goal is to identify environmental risk factors and understand their impact on health, in order to develop personalized therapies and take preventive action.

Climate changes are felt by us all. Our goal is to strengthen health despite climate change and thus prevent and combat common diseases even in the face of changing environmental conditions.

Prof. Dr. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann, Director of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Helmholtz Munich, advises people with allergies and atopic diseases such as neurodermatitis on complaints caused by climate change, in addition to her research activities in her capacity as a physician - and is therefore able to convey complex interrelationships clearly.

Heat stresses the body

Rising temperatures exacerbate both the causes and the consequences of allergies and allergic diseases such as hay fever, asthma and neurodermatitis. For example, milder temperatures in winter, spring and late fall, lead to an extended pollen season. Currently, people with pollen allergies can be affected throughout the entire year. Heat, air pollution and drought stress in plants, change the nature of their pollen, sometimes making their proteins more allergenic. Invasive plants with a longer flowering period, such as the highly allergenic ragweed, also contribute to this, and they additionally bring new allergenic pollen into the pollen potpourri.

Scientists at Helmholtz Munich are researching ways to prevent and treat allergic reactions to pollen in order to alleviate symptoms or to prevent a pollen allergy from developing at all. Among people with hay fever who do not receive treatment, or do not take preventive measures against allergens, a shift from one organ to another can occur: The symptoms of allergic rhinitis spread from the upper to the lower respiratory tract, i.e. the lungs. Allergic bronchial asthma can develop as a result, leading to an increased loss in quality of life.

Specific immunotherapy or hyposensitization is the most effective protection against hay fever. So far it is the only causal treatment against pollen allergy, and for people for whom this therapy is not fully effective or who do not want to or cannot be immunized, we are researching preventive measures: With the help of our daily pollen forecasts, everyone can be informed about the current pollen count and adjust their outdoor activities accordingly. With our long-term pollen monitoring, we can demonstrate the influence of climate change both retrospectively and in the future.

Prof. Dr. Jeroen Buters, is deputy director of the Institute for Allergy Research at Helmholtz Munich. Buters is a pollen expert and researches how the pollen count for a given location can be predicted on a daily basis even more precisely.

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When the body overheats

The body can compensate for heat, but only to a certain extent. Responses, such as sweating, dilated blood vessels or increased heart and breathing rates, can cool but at the same time strain the body. If this is ongoing or if the outside temperature continues to rise, it can considerably damage our health: Blood coagulation can change and cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks, as well as respiratory diseases and diabetes can worsen.

We are researching how heat, in combination with air pollutants and noise in urban environments, affects our health.

Prof. Dr. Annette Peters, Director of the Institute of Epidemiology at Helmholtz Munich, conducts research on the health effects of air pollution and other environmental factors, and addresses chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and lung disease in relation to climate change.

Protecting at-risk groups - the lungs are particularly sensitive to heat

In addition to people who have cardiovascular problems, people with lung diseases such as COPD and asthma, are also particularly affected by the effects of climate change: Their lungs are particularly sensitive to heat, and heat can trigger breathing problems. Often, respiratory rate cannot be increased at high temperatures, and as a result, the excess heat remains in the body, which then overheats and can trigger respiratory distress. Additionally, pollutants and ozone levels in the air can irritate the bronchial tubes and airways.

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Blood glucose rides a rollercoaster: Climate and diabetes

Climate change also has a negative impact on people with diabetes. In the heat, their blood glucose levels can get out of control faster than usual: High outdoor temperatures stimulate blood flow, and insulin enters the systemic circulation more quickly as a result. This increases the risk of hypoglycemia, which in the worst case can lead to loss of body control or unconsciousness. Diabetics may also experience interactions with other diseases: For example, people with diabetes are at increased risk of heat exhaustion. In many diabetics, blood flow to the heart is poorer than in people without diabetes. In the heat, blood vessels dilate and – just like increased fluid loss due to increased sweating - cause blood pressure to drop. Both can lead to circulatory collapse.

Treasure trove of science

Researchers at Helmholtz Munich can make long-term statements about the impact of climate change on health: From the KORA health studies, which have recorded data on cardiovascular health among 18,000 women and men since the mid-1980s, they can see that the negative effects of particulate matter increase as the outside temperature rises. As part of the NAKO health study, scientists across Germany have collected health data from 205,000 people since 2014, and have frozen blood and urine samples in the Helmholtz Munich biorepository at minus 80 to minus 180 degrees Celsius - a treasure trove of data. Through this data, it was for example possible, to clearly prove that allergies nowadays occur more frequently and at an earlier point in life.

As climate change increases, pollen and pollutants in the air also become more dangerous for us. Heat has an intensifying effect.

Prof. Dr. Annette Peters, Director of the Institute of Epidemiology at Helmholtz Munich, relates the wealth of data from the KORA and NAKO health studies to environmental factors and derives scientific conclusions about the effects of climate change on health.

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Looking at the big picture

Allergies, diabetes, lung diseases and cardiovascular problems - all these conditions are adversely affected by climate change and global warming, and also interact with each other to some extent. Researchers at Helmholtz Munich have the "big picture" in mind: They want to understand the underlying interrelationships in order to prevent disease development or alleviate symptoms in existing disease - for better health despite changing environmental conditions. Their approach: A network of basic research in collaboration with clinics and international partner institutions, with the goal of exploring personalized diagnosis, prevention and treatment options.

Further information

IAF (Institute for Allergy Research)

Website

IAP (Institute for Asthma and Allergy Prevention)

Website

IEM (Institute of Environmental Medicine)

Website

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