By Sean Zucker –
Few people enjoy their daily commute but some struggle with it more than most. For workers regularly traveling in or around highly populated cities, commuting translates into being stuck motionless in traffic, feeling equal parts frustrated and depleted. These slow-going journeys lead some folks to lament their daily trips are killing them. Ironically, a recent pair of studies suggest they just may be right.
One study conducted by the University of Melbourne in Australia found evidence that time spent commuting to work can significantly harm mental health. The university’s research team determined this after analyzing data over a 13-year period that focused on the relationship between commuting time and mental health that was drawn from an annual Australian survey.
The data showed individuals who spent more than six hours weekly experienced a higher degree of mental health decline compared to those who commuted for less than 2 hours a week.
The findings raise alarm bells for American workers. Even with the rise of remote working rearrangements, approximately 75 percent of workers in the U.S. still commute, with the vast majority of them driving to their jobs. Approximately, one-quarter of these individuals spend more than an hour a day commuting, which pushes them right up to the danger zone identified by the researchers from Melbourne. Unfortunately, if the steady rise in commute times over the last few decades is any indication, chances are a growing number of American workers will be spending more than six hours a week commuting within the next decade.
The mental health dangers were even more pronounced in individuals with low job control, indicating that the stress of commuting may be amplified by other negative workplace aspects. The researchers also found that while gender didn’t disproportionally exacerbate a commuter’s mental health, the presence of children and long hours on the job certainly had a diminishing effect.
Other research out of the University of Washington (UW) examined the connection between driving in traffic and blood pressure. Unlike the University of Melbourne’s study, these researchers chose not to focus on the personal stress of traffic and commuting. Instead, it was the air quality created on the roads that piqued their interest.
UW’s study relied on information drawn from 16 recruits aged 22 to 45, all of whom had normotensive blood pressure or normal blood pressure. The Washington researchers specifically tested the impact of commuting air quality on blood pressure.
The participants were then randomly assigned to drive in a vehicle equipped either with high-efficiency particulate air filtration or without any filtration beyond the standard found in most cars. Their blood pressure was recorded through 14 three-minute periods before, during and up to 24 hours after the drive. On average, blood pressure was roughly four millimeters of mercury (mm) higher for the group driving in unfiltered vehicles at the one-hour mark. Even after 24 hours, the blood pressure of those in unfiltered cars remained four mm higher.
“The body has a complex set of systems to try to keep blood pressure to your brain the same all the time. It’s a very complex, tightly regulated system and it appears that somewhere, in one of those mechanisms, traffic-related air pollution interferes with blood pressure,” said lead author Joel Kaufman, a UW physician and professor.
Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Institutes of Health, the study’s research team hopes their work will encourage additional analysis on potential adverse health connections between traffic-related pollution and drivers and bystanders.
“We know that modest increases in blood pressure like this, on a population level, are associated with a significant increase in cardiovascular disease,” Kaufman added. “There is a growing understanding that air pollution contributes to heart problems. The idea that roadway air pollution at relatively low levels can affect blood pressure this much is an important piece of the puzzle we’re trying to solve.”