Health Risks of Air Pollution on the Brain

You’re probably well aware of the health risks of air pollution—stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. But did you know that the negative effects of air pollution extend far beyond the heart and lungs and into the brain? Air pollution can stunt brain development, causing blood vessels to dangerously narrow as toxins accumulate in the brain. A recent study in the Journal of Gerontology zeroed in on the negative effects of air pollution on cognitive function in adults 55 and older.

airpollutionAir Pollution Pollutes the Brain

Air pollution is made up of particulate matter, tiny particles or liquid droplets that contain toxins like organic chemicals, metals, soil, and dust. The smallest particles carry the greatest health risks because they can seep into our lungs and brain. Fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less poses the most threat to cognitive function and brain health. (The EPA deems particulate matter 10 micrometers or less a potential health concern.) Gases from automobiles, forest fires, power plants, and industrial manufacturing facilities unleash fine particulate matter into the air.

Interested in examining the link between air pollution and cognitive impairment, researchers measured the air pollution levels in the participants’ neighborhoods. The EPA air quality standard is set at 12 micrometers per cubic meter, but the average concentrations of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in these neighborhoods was much higher—13.8 micrometers per cubic meter!

Results showed that people who lived in the most polluted areas were 1.5 times more likely to exhibit decreased cognitive function than were those living in the least polluted areas (with an air quality score of 5 micrometers per cubic meter).

Researchers attribute the health risks of air pollution on the brain to fine particulate matter that impacts the cardiovascular system, traveling up through the blood vessels to the brain. Researchers also noted that air pollution may act directly on the brain.

A 2012 study showed that long-term exposure to air pollution between 2.5 and 10 micrometers dramatically accelerated the rate of cognitive decline, affecting memory and attention span in elderly women 70-81 years old. But the health risks of air pollution don’t just impact older brains. A 2002 study published in the journal Toxicology Pathology indicated that the negative effects of air pollution begin early in life, instigating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Protect Against Air Pollution

Apart from moving to a more pristine, rural environment, you can monitor air pollution by checking in daily with the EPA’s Air Quality Index. Just enter your zip code to find out the air quality of your neighborhood as measured by Particles (2.5 micrometers), Ozone, Nitrogen Dioxide, Particles (10 micrometers), and Carbon Dioxide.

Don’t get too cozy inside. Indoor pollution can be 5 to 10 times more toxic than outdoor air pollution. We are susceptible to indoor pollution from mold, tobacco smoke, household cleaners…even the upholstery on our furniture! Investing in an air purifier offers a level of protection against indoor pollution, so you can breathe easier and think clearer!