More and more studies are demonstrating how exposure to air pollution increases cognitive decline, plus increases the risk of developing dementia. Just living near heavy traffic is considered a high-risk factor for both of those conditions, more than doubling your risk. If you live in an urban, polluted setting, you may want to re-evaluate your work and living environments, taking the necessary steps to improve the air quality inside those settings.
With air pollution, it has been well established how “dirty air” leads to an increased risk of respiratory conditions, heart attacks, strokes, and even cancer. The negative impact of “dirty air” has only recently been linked to cognitive decline and dementia. According to the most recent studies, individuals – who lived in areas with the worst air quality – scored significantly lower on tests of memory and reasoning skills than those individuals who lived in areas of higher air quality.
Over the years it has been difficult to establish a clear correlation between pollution and cognitive decline because of the multitude of causative factors, including diet, exercise, sleep, stress, etc. But experts currently assert that long-term exposure to polluted air causes chronic brain inflammation, cell death, and the buildup of amyloid deposits. Long-term exposure to polluted air equates to at least a two-year decline in brain function and an estimated 2 million additional cases of dementia.
Air pollutants contain chemicals and metals that are suspended in the air. These fine particles, when dense in the air, become damaging to the lungs and – after transport into the blood stream – become just as damaging to other organs, including the brain. With clean air, there are still a significant number of fine particles and ultra-fine particles in the air; but in polluted air, the number of particles, fine and ultra-fine, rises by a factor of 20- 200. Worse, many of those particles are strongly toxic and immediately damaging.
Most people associate those increased particles with an urban environment. Images of the dense smog in China and the people wearing masks is a popular photo. Many cites in the United States have similar pollution. But air pollution can occur in any area with a condensed population. Would you believe that cruise ships have heavy pollution – fine and ultra-fine particles – in the walkways around the outside of the ship? Those “walking” or “jogging” areas are negatively impacting passenger’s health and increasing the risk of cognitive decline.
People assume that pollution comes from so-called black carbon (the smog that we can see in large cities), but it comes from all types of emissions. Damaging particles, fine and ultra-fine, can come from cars, boats, diesel-powered equipment, other industrial processes (heavy oil), and even from wood burning. If the air does not “look” dirty, it might still be packed with fine and ultra-fine particles – and the increased number of particles, by itself, can be damaging to your lungs and your brain.
To protect yourself – if you are in an area of higher pollution – one of the better ideas is to stay indoors. As strange as it seems, that is even true on a cruise. You have cleaner air inside than outside on the walkway. Now, if you are driving in traffic, you may want the air conditioner on, filtering out some of those damaging particles. Same for your office and home. If you can afford the cost, you would be advised to purchase a HEPA air filter for both your office and your home. HEPA (high efficiency particle assistance) lowers the number of particles in the air and captures the heavier particles, which have the highest toxicity.
By taking precautions to clean your air, even if it costs you some additional money, you are protecting yourself from those pollutants and protecting yourself from cognitive decline and the increased risk of dementia. A new piece of furniture for your office or home may look nice, but it is not going to change your health outcome. I would take that same money and spend it on some air filters so you can improve your overall health, increase your cognition, and decrease your risk of dementia. A typical air filter cleans 1,000 square feet. Buy a couple.
If you need more of an incentive, think of the future costs associated with dementia. There is the enormous emotional toll on yourself and your family. There is also the cost of treatments and medications, which have limited efficacy for dementia. More importantly, there is the future cost of eventual custodial care, as many demented patients need far more care, often 24 hour care, than any family can provide. That cost is usually lasts at least 3-5 years for most dementia patients.
If you are wondering if you should take these preventative actions, here is one litmus test. If you live in an urban environment with traffic and smog, the answer is an easy “yes.” If you live in a more rural environment with cleaner air, you have a more difficult decision. Me? I would take the test for the gene APOE-e4. This is the gene that is associated with a 3-fold higher risk for developing dementia. If you have that gene, you should take preventive measures, even if you live in a rural setting.
Lastly, keep in mind the following reality. In the Trump Presidency, the environmental regulations are likely to be softened to allow for a better business environment. I am apolitical, but a better business environment is not the same as a healthier environment. Most likely, pollution is going to get worse before it gets better. Most likely, your risk of developing dementia is going to rise before it drops. So, protect yourself – with the above suggestions.
Take those actions before you forget …
And before you have to protect yourself like this …