Bad air is bad for your brain

What is in the air can affect your brain.

Air pollution has been linked to neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, by new research published in The Lancet.

The large, long-term study of American adults conducted by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that “air pollution was significantly associated with an increased risk of hospital admissions for several neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and other dementias”.

Researchers examined hospital admissions data from 2000 to 2016, analysing tiny airborne particle (PM2.5) pollution, concluding that “long-term PM2.5 exposures are linked to an increased risk of neurological health deterioration”.

PM2.5 pollution comes from combustion-related sources including industrial emissions, transportation, bushfires and chemical reactions of pollutants in the atmosphere.

It reported that for each five microgram per cubic metres of air increase in annual PM2.5 concentrations, there was a 13 per cent increased risk for first-time hospital admissions for Parkinson’s disease and for Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

A previous study of the brainstems of 186 young people in Mexico City found markers of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, motor neuron disease (MND) and “tiny, distinctive nanoparticles” were likely to come from motor vehicle pollution.

“This has led researchers to conclude that air pollution of this nature – whether inhaled or swallowed – puts people at risk of potential neurological harm,” reported Science Daily.

“The one thing common to all of the young people examined in the study was their exposure to high levels of particulate air pollution.

“These new findings show that pollution-derived, metal-rich nanoparticles can reach the brainstem whether by inhalation or swallowing, and that they are associated with damage to key components of nerve cells in the brainstem.”

Study leader Professor Barbara Maher from Lancaster University said the findings indicated that “what air pollutants you are exposed to, what you are inhaling and swallowing, are really significant in development of neurological damage”.

“With this in mind, control of nanoparticulate sources of air pollution becomes critical and urgent.”

Another recent study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, found that coronavirus lockdowns in China and Europe at the start of the pandemic improved air quality, averting tens of thousands of deaths in regions where air pollution has a significant impact on mortality.

Scientists from the University of Notre Dame found that particulate matter concentrations in China dropped by 29.7 per cent, and by 17.1 per cent in parts of Europe, during lockdowns in February and March.

“We look on these lockdowns as the first global experiment of forced low-emission scenarios,” said Paola Crippa, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at Notre Dame.

“This unique, real-world experiment shows us that strong improvements in severely polluted areas are achievable even in the short term if strong measures are implemented.

“The most surprising part of this work is related to the impact on human health of the air quality improvements,” Ms Crippa said.

“These results underline the severity of air quality issues in some areas of the world and the need for immediate action.”

From February to March, the study found an estimated 24,200 premature deaths associated with particulate matter were averted throughout China and “improvements in air quality were widespread across China because of extended lockdown measures”.

COVID-19-related deaths were higher in Europe, but an estimated 2190 deaths were still avoided.

“In China, we saw that lockdowns implied very significant reductions in PM2.5 concentrations, which means that policies targeting industrial and traffic emissions might be very effective in the future,” Ms Crippa said.

“In Europe, those reductions were somewhat smaller but there was still a significant effect, suggesting that other factors might be considered to shape an effective mitigation strategy.”

Ms Crippa suggested these strategies could include subsidies to electric vehicles, prioritising public transport in heavily trafficked cities and adoption of more stringent emission limitations for industries.

“If interventions of a similar scale to those adopted to address the COVID-19 pandemic were widely and systematically adopted, substantial progress towards solving the most pressing environmental and health crisis of our time could be achieved.”

Air pollution is considered the world’s leading environmental cause of death. In 2016, the World Health Organization believes it contributed to 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide.

It blames ambient air pollution to deaths from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children. Male infertility has also been linked to air pollution.

Air pollution is considered the major environmental risk factor in the progression of asthma, lung cancer, ventricular hypertrophy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, psychological complications, autism, retinopathy, foetal growth, and low birth weight.

Worldwide ambient air pollution accounts for:

  • 29 per cent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
  • 17 per cent of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
  • 24 per cent of all deaths from stroke
  • 25 per cent of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
  • 43 per cent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.


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Written by Will Brodie

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