Air pollution may not just be harmful to your respiratory health. In fact, breathing in fine dust pollution known as particulate matter may also contribute to changes in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
A new study, carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), focused on 998 women in their 70s and 80s who had been exposed to varying levels of air pollution. Using data from the Women’s Health Initiative, the researchers tracked brain scans of the women five years apart, as well as measured their levels of exposure to air pollution.
The women who were exposed to more air pollution in the five years between brain scans had a higher likelihood of developing visible changes in their brains. In particular, the researchers identified atrophy, or the brain getting smaller, as one of the main changes.
“We found that the air pollution was contributing to atrophy or parts of the brain getting smaller over the five years. So, women who were exposed to higher levels of air pollution had greater atrophy in those important brain areas associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Even when we adjusted for important factors associated with Alzheimer’s—like age, cardiovascular health, clinical status, racial background and lifestyle such as smoking or exercise, we still found that this association [between air pollution and brain changes] persisted.”– Andrew Petkus, Assistant Professor, Department of Neurology at USC and an author of the study
Petkus hopes that continued research into the link between air pollution and cognitive health will have ‘important policy implications.’ It’s necessary to continue enforcing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines and standards. Doing this could have important implications in decreasing risks for memory decline.
Individually, there’s not much you can do to clean the air. But you can reduce your risk of exposure to air pollution by staying indoors on days when there are air pollution advisories.