Research Report: Bad Air Bogs Down the Brain
If you’re over 50 and live in an area with high levels of air pollution, your brain could be aging faster than it should. That’s the message of a new study that links tiny particulate matter from auto exhaust and other pollutants with eroding brain power.
In fact, your brain could age by up to three years faster than normal if you’re exposed to the highest pollution levels, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the 2004 National Health and Retirement study.
The study, which associated air pollution and reduced brain power in a nationwide sample of men and women over 50, was presented at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual scientific meeting in San Diego.
The data hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal so it’s considered preliminary. But a similar finding among older women was reported in the February Archives of Internal Medicine, giving the new study extra weight.
“As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air,” lead researcher Jennifer Ailshire, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, explained in a statement.
“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,” she added.
How Bad Air Ages Your Brain
Ailshire and her colleagues looked at the effects of fine particulate pollution, particles 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller produced by vehicle exhaust, heavy industry emissions and even gas boilers.
MP2.5 particles are so tiny—about one thirtieth the width of a strand of hair— that if you inhale them, they can settle deep in your lungs and possibly in the brain, too, where they cause damage.
Ailshire’s team at the University of Southern California compared data on MP2.5 from EPA air monitors across the country with the results of cognitive tests from a cross-section of almost 15,000 men and women 50 and older. The tests measured word recall, knowledge, language, and orientation.
People in areas with high PM2.5 levels scored worse on tests of mental ability, even after accounting for age, race/ethnicity, education, smoking, and respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Every 10-point increase in PM2.5 was associated with a 0.36 point decline in cognitive function scores—roughly equal to three years of brain aging. Every one-year increase in age among the HRS participants was linked with a drop of 0.13 in cognitive function scores related to pollution.
The February 2012 study, from Rush University in Chicago, followed almost 20,000 women ages 70 to 81 over a decade and like the earlier study, found that breathing polluted air sped up declines in memory and attention span.
While many cities issue high-pollution alerts, especially on warm days when heat traps smog, you may not be aware of the air quality in your area.
But there’s a way to find out before you go walking.
The EPA has an online interactive map that shows pollution in your area and allows you to sign up for special alerts— a boon for pollution-sensitive seniors. Click here to visit the map or click on the link in the widget below, which shows you current air quality for New York City.