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BACKGROUND: Physical disability is common though not inevitable in older age and has direct bearing on a person’s ability to perform activities essential for self-care and independent living. Air pollution appears to increase the risk of several chronic diseases that contribute to the progression of disability.

OBJECTIVE: We evaluated long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) in relation to progression in physical disability.

METHODS: We conducted our investigation within the Chicago Health and Aging Project. We measured participants’ exposures to TRAP using two surrogates: residential proximity to major roads (1993 onwards) and ambient concentrations of oxides of nitrogen (NOX; 1999 onwards), predicted via a geographic information systems-based spatiotemporal smoothing model (cross-validation R2 = 0.87) that incorporated community-based monitoring and resolved intraurban exposure gradients at a spatial scale of tens of meters. Participants’ lower-extremity physical ability was assessed every 3 years (1993–2012) via tandem stand, chair stand, and timed walking speed.

Results: In multivariable-adjusted analyses (n = 5,708), higher long-term NOX exposure was associated with significantly faster progression in disability. Compared with the 5-year decline in physical ability score among participants in the lowest quartile of NOX exposure, decline among those in the highest exposure quartile was 1.14 units greater (95% confidence interval [CI]: –1.86, –0.42), equivalent to 3 additional years of decline among those in the lowest exposure quartile. The association was linear across the continuum of NOX exposure: per 10-ppb increment in exposure, the 5-year decline in physical ability score was 0.87 unit greater (95% CI: –1.35, –0.39). Proximity to a major road was not associated with disability progression (n = 9,994).

CONCLUSIONS: These data join a growing body of evidence suggesting that TRAP exposures may accelerate aging-related declines in health.


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Copyright Statement

This document was originally published in Environmental Health Perspectives by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Copyright restrictions may apply. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1510089