Story at a glance

  • Air pollution is a significant contributor to environmental damage and climate change on a global scale.
  • A new study found that prolonged exposure to air pollution may be linked to a decline in the mental faculties of older white men.
  • The study found pollution could still be harmful even when it fell under safety thresholds for toxic air set by the World Health Organization and national regulators.

Nearly 1,000 older white men in the Greater Boston area may be evidence of the lasting damage air pollution can have on the mind, according to the results of a new study

“This work confirms that there is a link between air pollution and how well the ageing brain works,” Andrea Baccarelli, a senior author on the study and professor at Columbia University, told The Guardian. “These shorter-term effects are reversible: when air pollution clears, our brain reboots and starts working back to its original level. However, multiple occurrences of these higher exposures cause permanent damage.”


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The study compared multiple cognitive test scores with local levels of airborne particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres across, known as PM2.5s, which can be discharged from road vehicles and other industrial polluters. Those who were exposed to higher levels of the pollutants scored worse — even when the levels were below national thresholds and recommendations from the World Health Organization.   

There may be reason to hope that this damage is preventable, according to the authors, who noted that short-term rises in pollution had less of an effect on the scores of men taking aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Still, long-term exposure to air pollution reveals yet another consequence of climate change.  

“Our findings do not suggest yet that all older people should be on anti-inflammatory drugs, because these are medications with side-effects we cannot take lightly,” Baccarelli told The Guardian. “More holistically, reducing inflammation through a healthy diet, such as more fruit, vegetables, and fibre, or having regular physical exercise, can go a long way not only to make us generally healthier but also to make us more resilient against environmental threats such as air pollution.”  


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Published on May 03, 2021