Bad Air Is Also Bad for the Brain

Most people living in or near heavily polluted areas often worry about the consequences of poor air quality on their lungs. What they may not realize is that bad air can also affect brainpower.

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Retirement Study, older adults living in areas of high air pollution may experience decreased cognitive function and brain health. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering that in recent years, air pollution has also been linked to cardiovascular and other circulatory health challenges.

Study Results Consistent Across the Board


In a sample size of 14,793 white, African American, and Hispanic men and women aged 50 and older, people living in areas with high amounts of fine particulate matter (particles that are small enough to deposit in the lungs and the brain) scored lower on cognitive tests designed to assess word recall, knowledge, language, and orientation. Results remained consistent regardless of factors such as age, ethnicity, and existing cardiovascular or respiratory health conditions.

The researchers found that as the amount of particulate matter exposure increased, scores on cognitive function tests decreased accordingly. A 10-point increase in particulate matter, for example, was associated with a 0.36 point drop in cognitive function score, which was roughly equal to aging the brain by three years.

Older Adults at Greater Risk from Bad Air

Although an exact cause was not given as to how air pollution directly affected brain health, Jennifer Ailshire, Ph.D., stated that “…older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air.” Dr. Ailshire conducted the study and is a National Institute on Aging postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Biodemography and Population Health and the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California.

While there’s not much you can do to control outdoor air pollution, short of moving to a less polluted area, you can still be mindful of your respiratory—and cognitive health—by monitoring the local Air Quality Index. You can also clear the inside of your home of dust mites, mould, and pet dander since particulate matter can also accumulate indoors.

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