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Issue 204: Bad Air, Bad Brain

Bad Air, Bad Brain

Maintaining a healthy brain is a goal—and a concern—for many people. For instance, Baby Boomers, who represent the single largest demographic in place today, rank brain unhealth—cognitive decline, actually—as their greatest health fear. That’s according to a strategic marketing consulting professional who says, “The normal cognitive decline that accompanies aging ranks highest among Baby Boomer fears. Half of Boomers have a fear of losing mental/brain capacity and being a burden on their family or loved ones as a result of their aging.” 

Boomers aren’t alone in the concern for brain health, though. According to the National Marketing Institute Health & Wellness Trends database, a very large percent of the general population is concerned about maintaining cognitive function and mental acuity, which is the same percentage concerned about cancer. Only 13 percent, however, say they are satisfied with how their household is addressing this concern. 

No doubt you’ve heard that a healthy diet, consistent exercise and supplementing the diet when necessary with nutrients such as vitamin D, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids can help support brain health. In fact, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is especially important in the function of brain cell membranes, which are essential for transmitting brain signals.  

So, what’s this about air quality and brain health?  

Recently, research presented in San Diego at The Geronotological Society of America (GSA) 65th Annual Scientific Meeting indicates that the air you breathe can damage your brain. More specifically, the scientists found that living in areas of high air pollution can cause decreased cognitive function in older adults—those who are age 50 and older, which accounts for 60+ milllion people currently, but is set to increase to over 107 million people by the year 2030. The study evaluated data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Retirement Study—and it's the first study of its kind to call out how exposure to air pollution affects cognitive function in older men and women.  

Researcher Jennifer Ailshire, Ph.D., a National Institute on Aging postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Biodemography and Population Health and the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of California, says, “As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air. Air pollution has been linked to increased cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even premature death, in older populations, and there is emerging evidence that exposure to particulate air pollution may have adverse effects on brain health and functioning as well.” 

Ailshire concludes that fine air particulate matter—particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller—can deposit deep in the lungs, and possibly the brain, when inhaled. This adds a high environmental risk factor that can result in reduced ability to think and to remember accurately.  

And just what does this mean as far as brain impact? The outcome of breathing polluted city air can age the thinking process more quickly than if you breathed clean air, but the study indicated that fine particulate matter in air-polluted cities ranged from 4.1 to 20.7 micrograms per cubic meter. For every ten-point increase, cognitive function score dropped by .36 points, which is equivalent to approximately three years.

Now, take another deep breath, but make sure you’re breathing in clean air—for brain health and more.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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