Most climate-health studies focus on temperature; however, less is known about health effects of exposure to atmospheric moisture. Humid air limits sweat evaporation from the body and can in turn exert strain on the cardiovascular system. We evaluated associations of long-term exposure to summer specific humidity with cardiovascular disease (CVD), coronary heart disease (CHD) and cerebrovascular disease (CBV) hospitalization.
We built an open cohort consisting of ∼63 million fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries, aged ≥65, living in the contiguous US (2000-2016). We assessed zip code level summer average specific humidity and specific humidity variability, based on daily estimates from the Gridded Surface Meteorological dataset (∼4km spatial resolution). To estimate associations of summer specific humidity with first CVD, CHD, and CBV hospitalization, we used Cox-equivalent Poisson models adjusted for individual and area-level socioeconomic status indicators, temperature, and winter specific humidity.
Higher summer average specific humidity was associated with an increased risk of CVD, CHD, and CBV hospitalization. We found hazard ratios (HRs) of 1.07 (95%CI: 1.07, 1.08) for CVD hospitalization, 1.08 (95%CI: 1.08, 1.09) for CHD hospitalization, and 1.07 (95%CI: 1.07, 1.08) for CBV hospitalization per IQR increase (4.0 g of water vapor/kg of dry air) in summer average specific humidity. Associations of summer average specific humidity were strongest for beneficiaries eligible for Medicaid and for beneficiaries with an unknown or other race. Higher summer specific humidity variability was also associated with increased risk of CVD, CHD, and CBV hospitalization. Associations were not affected by adjustment for temperature and regions of the US, as well as exclusion of potentially prevalent cases.
Long-term exposure to higher summer average specific humidity and specific humidity variability were positively associated with CVD hospitalization. As global warming could increase humidity levels, our findings are important to assess potential health impacts of climate change.