It’s well established that inhaling fine pollutant particles in the air can increase the risk of conditions such as asthma, lung cancer, and even heart disease. More recently, there has been a growing body of evidence suggesting that pollution can cause inflammation and oxidation that harms the brain, speed up cognitive aging, and may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Magnetite is toxic to the brain, causing oxidative stress that damages and kills brain cells. What is magnetite? A pollutant that is so small it can enter the brain through the same nerves that allow us to smell. A study published in 2016 found an abundance of magnetite in the brain tissue of 37 people who had lived in polluted urban areas: Mexico City and Manchester.
Air pollution is linked to increased psychological distress. A study that followed over 6000 people in the United States between 1999-2011 found that people living in areas with high levels of PM2.5 experienced 17% higher rates of psychological distress. In this study, distress meant feelings of sadness, nervousness, restlessness, hopelessness, and low self worth.
Performance on memory and attention tests declined as if aging by 2 years for every additional 10 mcg of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air breathed. These were the findings of a study looking at 19,000 retired nurses in the United States.
Living close to major roads was linked to a 12% higher risk of developing dementia. Researchers from the University of Toronto compared the risk of dementia between those living within 50 meters of a major road and those living more than 200 meters away. According to their paper, levels of fine pollutants are often 10 times higher within 50 meters of a major road, compared to 150 meters.
These aren’t the only studies. In a 2016 review of 18 studies from Taiwan, Sweden, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States, 17 of the studies showed a link between high exposure to air pollution and signs of dementia.
Reducing health risks from air pollution can be done in 2 ways: reducing your contribution to air pollution and protecting yourself from exposure to air pollution.
7 Ways to reduce your contribution to air pollution:
- Reduce vehicle use by carpooling, taking public transportation, walking, or biking.
- Maintain your vehicle (example: keep tires inflated) and drive smart (don’t accelerate quickly or brake hard).
- Don’t idle your vehicle for more than 10 seconds if waiting for someone.
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle.
- Run your washer, dryer, and dishwasher only when they’re full.
- Use energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances.
- Turn off your lights, computers, and electric appliances when not in use.
5 Ways to protect yourself from exposure to air pollution:
- Stop smoking; avoid second hand smoke.
- Have plants in and around your home. Plant a tree.
- Check air quality and avoid going out if quality is poor.
- Exercise to keep your lungs healthy.
- Eat well to improve your immune system; include antioxidants.