High levels of air pollution can age the brain by 3 years

A study recently presented in San Diego at The Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) 65th Annual Scientific Meeting, has linked a high level of air pollution to cognitive decline, with data suggesting that increased pollution levels could be ageing the brains of over-50s by up to three years. In addition, previous research had also found that the problems of pollution are connected to cardiovascular and respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD. This is because pollutants such as cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes emit gases and particles into the atmosphere, causing irritation to the airways.

The latest research on air pollution was conducted by the US-based National Institute on Aging, who analysed 14,793 men and women aged over 50. The scientists specifically looked at the results of cognitive tests and correlated the results against geographical data of air pollution.  Participants were tested on knowledge, language, orientation and word recall, being measured on a scale of 1 to 35.

As it currently stands, health experts estimate that air pollution is already effecting the heart and lungs and slashing the life expectancy of everybody living in the United Kingdom by approximately seven to eight months.

The U.S. scientists were studying exactly how the particle matter ‘PM2.5’ affected health and well-being of the participants. PM2.5 is released via dust, dirt, liquid droplets, soot and smoke. It is commonly breathed in after being emitted by vehicle exhaust emissions, in addition to gas boilers and heavy industry.  The name PM2.5 stems from the fact that the particles which are 2.5 micrometres in diameter or smaller, are unfortunately small enough to be inhaled and deposit deep inside the lungs and the brain.

In order to obtain accurate information, numerous factors were taken into account such as age, race/ethnicity, education, smoking behaviour and respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. It was determined that exposure to fine air particulate matter ranged from 4.1 to 20.7 micrograms (mcg) per cubic metre, and for every extra 10 micrograms of PM2.5 in a cubic metre of air (about the difference between inner London and rural Britain), the decline of brain power in the study subjects equated to roughly three years of ageing.

Dr Jennifer Ailshire, from the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, carried out the analysing by utilising data obtained from the American Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Retirement Study. Regarding the results of the research, she said: “As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air. Air pollution has been linked to increased cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even premature death, in older populations, and there is emerging evidence that exposure to particulate air pollution may have adverse effects on brain health and functioning as well.”

Adding to Dr Ailshire’s comments was Professor Frank Kelly, a professor of environmental health at King’s College London. He offered his thoughts on the problem of air pollution and said: “The average amount of this pollutant in London is around 13 to 15 mcg per cubic metre, while in some rural areas away from traffic it can be as low as three or four mcg. The research shows that living somewhere with clean air means your will retain your brain power for a longer period of time than if you live in an urban area. Here is another study showing that the quality of the air that we breathe can not only affect for our heart and lungs, but our brains as well.”

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