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The Frightening Link between Air Pollution and Cognitive Health

Did you know that even the air you breathe can have an impact on your mental health? Find out the startling link between air pollution and memory loss below.
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Air pollution has been linked with a variety of health problems, including respiratory problems, heart problems, and headaches. But did you also know that air pollution may also be affecting your brain and memory?

A study from 2014 published in Environmental Health Prospective found that elderly adults who lived in areas with a high amount of air pollution were 1.5 times more likely o have memory and cognitive problems than elderly adults who lived in areas with clean air. This latest research backs data found in other studies indicating that exposure to polluted air has a negative affect on the brain.

But how exactly does polluted air affect the brain? And what can you do about it? Read more to discover how to address this challenging issue.

Studies on Air Pollution and Cognitive Function

Researchers have examined the link between air pollution and health for several decades, leading back to the 1970s or earlier. Below is a summary of some of the data on air pollution and memory.

In 2008, a study published in the journal Brain and Cognition examined the link between air pollution and the brain functioning of children and dogs. The researchers conducted their study on children living in Mexico City and in a city with low pollution. Children underwent psychometric testing and MRI scans. Of the children living in Mexico City, 57 percent showed cognitive damage both in mental testing and in brain scans. The study researchers concluded that air pollution may contribute to cognitive delays and defects in children.

In 2011, a study published in Molecular Psychiatry found a link between air pollution and memory loss and depression. In this study, researchers examined the effects of air pollution on mice. Mice that were exposed to greater amounts of air pollution were more likely to have memory problems, mental problems, and depression. Researchers believe that similar effects can happen in humans.

Two studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 found that air pollution has negative effects on cognitive performance in both the short-term and the long-term. In these studies, it was found that pollution particles get into the brain and cause inflammation. This inflammation contributes to a faster onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by increasing the the deposition of beta amyloid plaques. The researchers found that in these studies, older women who were exposed to higher levels of pollution had a cognitive age that reported two years older for every increase in 10 micrograms per liter of pollution. The greater the amount of pollution, the faster and more severe was the memory loss.

In 2013, a study conducted by the Andrus Gerontology Center and Survey Research Center examined the links between traffic-related air pollution and children’s ADHD symptoms. After adjusting for other factors, the researchers found that children who were exposed to the highest levels of traffic pollution had significantly increased Hyperactivity T-scores placing them in the “at risk” category for ADHD.

In 2014, Andrus Gerontology Center and Survey Research Center also examined the effects of vehicle exhaust and air pollution on older adults. According to data from the researchers, air pollution may hasten cognitive decline in adults. The study researchers stated, “…there is growing evidence that fine particulate matter air pollution affects brain health and development.”

The 2014 study examined studies leading back from 1986 and looked at over 700 study participants. The participants were given scores based on how many cognitive errors they had on math and memory tests. The average particle concentration of air pollution for study participants was 13.8 micrograms per cubic meter, which is above the EPA’s standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Using this data, the researchers found that individuals who lived in areas with air pollution of about 15 micrograms per cubic meter or more had an increased risk of 1.5 times for developing memory problems.

Study Implications on Cognitive Health

According to these studies, it is air particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers that have the biggest negative impact on cognitive health. Smaller particles tend to be more dangerous because they can enter the lungs and the blood stream. These studies indicate that many individuals are exposed to higher levels of pollution than is recommended by the EPA. Additional air pollutants can cause a myriad of health effects, including mental decline, cognitive decline, the increase of plaque in the brain, lesions in the brain, and even depression.

A 2002 study published in Toxicologic Pathology even concluded that “…neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's may begin early in life with air pollutants playing a crucial role.” Studies have also shown that air pollution causes mental problems both in the young and in the elderly.

How to Prevent Air Pollution

Damage Individuals living in densely populated areas are at highest risk for high levels of air pollution. The best way to avoid outdoor air pollution is to watch the Air Quality Index (AQI), released by the EPA. The EPA checks for five pollutants in the air:

Air Pollutants to Monitor 
  • Ground-level ozone
  • Particulate matter
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide

When your city has pollution warnings, try to stay indoors as much as possible and avoid exercising outdoors. Avoid indoor pollution by keeping the air circulated indoors as much as possible. Lack of ventilation allows air pollutants to build up indoors (particularly from heaters and wood stoves during the winter). Try to remove as many sources of indoor air pollution from your home as possible. Common air pollutants include:

  • Mold
  • Smoke
  • Tobacco
  • Pesticides
  • Paints with high VOC
  • Vinyl products
  • Pesticides
  • Chemical cleaners
  • Hairspray and other aerosol sprays
  • Glues and sealers

An indoor air purification system can help remove unwanted indoor air pollutants. Whole-house filtration systems such as HEPA filters are effective at removing all but the smallest particles.

Other air quality improvement tips include:

  • Vacuum several times a week with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter
  • Wash bedding, curtains, and other fabric often
  • Open a few windows every day for at least five minutes to promote air circulation
  • Keep plants indoors to absorb air pollutants
  • Don’t wear shoes indoors
  • Don’t allow smoking indoors
  • Use all non-toxic cleaning products
  • Switch to an eco-friendly dry cleaner
  • Keep house and furnace filters clean
  • Don’t store paint, chemicals, and solvents in the house or garage
  • Make sure all appliances are properly ventilated
  • Discourage mold by using ventilation in bathrooms and fixing leaks and drainage problems

Eat for Better Memory

You will not be able to stop all forms of air pollution. Filtering the air and bringing in plants can only help so much. This is why it is important to provide your body with the tools it needs to protect your memory from the inside out. Luckily, the right foods can have a protective effect on the brain and your cognitive health.

Combine a healthy diet with physical and mental exercise to keep your brain as healthy as possible throughout life.

Healthy Brain Foods

In general, any food that is sustainably raised and comes from nature will benefit your brain. Staying away from foods like processed fats, junk food, high amounts of sugar, empty carbs, and other unhealthy foods will benefit the brain in numerous ways. However, if you are looking for specific foods to boost brain power, Health.com has a few recommendations:

Healthy Foods for Memory

Foods rich in vitamin E: Nut oils, olive oil, nuts and seeds, orange vegetables.

Berries: Berries contain antioxidants that can help prevent the build-up of contaminants in the brain that can contribute to memory loss, such as plaque.

Dark leafy greens: Dark greens contain a nice mix of vitamin E and B vitamins as well as brain-boosting minerals.

Fish: Fish contain healthy omega-3 fats which are essential for brain health. Many fish also contain B vitamins which are beneficial for memory.

Supplements to Boost Cognitive Function

If you want a little more brain-boosting power in addition to eating a healthy diet and regular exercise, these supplements have been show to benefit the brain and memory in clinical studies.

Omega 3: Omega 3 is absolutely essential to brain health. According to Web MD, a higher omega-3 fat intake is linked with a reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Huperzine A: Huperzine A is sometimes called Chinese club moss. Web MD states that some studies have shown that supplementing with Huperzine A is just as effective in reversing Alzheimer’s disease as medication.

Ginkgo Biloba: Ginkgo biloba is a commonly-used herb in the treatment for memory loss. According to Web MD, Ginkgo biloba might be as effective as acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs for treating memory problems.

B Vitamins: According to Harvard Health, vitamin B12, B9, and B6 are the most beneficial for memory and brain health. Supplementing with these B vitamins may prevent mental deterioration and prevent some of the damaging side effects of air pollution.

Air Quality and Your Memory

Although there isn’t much we can do about air pollution (other than move away from the city and promote clean manufacturing processes), awareness of how air pollution can impact mental health is important. There is a clear link between the quality of air and the increase in memory problems and other mental disorders. Because air pollution is so prevalent today, even if you do not currently suffer from memory problems, it may be necessary to take additional measures to prevent pollution-related decline.

Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, cleaning the air in your home, and supplementing with brain-boosting ingredients can provide the best protection against current and future mental deterioration and memory loss. With these steps, you increase your chances of having a healthy brain throughout life.





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