There are plenty of problems associated with air pollution, ranging from the natural environment to your health. And although a smoggy day can lead to trouble breathing and increase the risk for a heart attack or stroke in those with risk factors, it’s not often thought that air pollution can affect your mind.
But research is indicating pollutants in the air, which most of us breathe in daily, could increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. And that’s not all. They can also lead to, or worsen, chronic conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), allergies, and other conditions that affect breathing.
How Air Pollution Impacts Your Health
Often an afterthought, air pollution can be very taxing on your health while being nearly impossible to avoid. There are certain factors that you can control—like purchasing an air purifier or mattress cover to improve air quality in your home—while others are less within your grasp. For example, it’s unreasonable to ask a person to abandon their home in search of a neighborhood or area with slightly better air quality.
One of the main culprits circulating in the air attacking your health is particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5. These are little particles in the air up to 2.5 micrometers in diameter—meaning they are about 30 times smaller than the diameter of a single strand of hair. You can’t see them, but depending on where you live, they could be infesting the air you’re breathing every day.
PM2.5 particles consist of solid and liquid droplets emitted from sources that use combustion like power plants and motor vehicles. As you may expect, those that live in urban or suburban areas with heavy traffic, or those living close to power plants or factories, have higher concentrations of these pollutants in their atmosphere. Because of their small size, the particles are easily and regularly inhaled and can produce adverse heath effects. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PS2.5 can lead to:
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Reduced lung function
- Premature death in people with lung or heart disease
New Study Closely Links Air Pollution to Dementia
Some new research published in Translational Psychology found that roughly 20%—or one-fifth—of dementia cases in the United States could be caused by air pollution. The findings showed that exposure could increase older women’s risk of dementia by over 90%. But the team conducting the study believes that men are just as likely to be affected. The team analyzed data from 3,647 women in 48 states who participated in the large-scale Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS). They were between the ages of 65 and 79, and none were diagnosed with dementia at the time of enrollment. As the study went on, they were tested for cognitive impairment.
It became apparent that where the women lived impacted their exposure to PM2.5, which in turn, increased the risk of dementia. Women that resided in areas where exposure was high—levels that exceeded 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air or PM2.5—were at an 81% greater risk of cognitive decline. Their risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia was 92% higher.
It doesn’t only seem to be proximity or the amount that’s inhaled, but also the genetic makeup. Women who possessed a gene called APOE ε4 saw greater beta-amyloid plaque build up. Beta-amyloid plaque is a symptom of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and it appears PM2.5 can lead to greater build-up.
Protecting Your Home from Air Pollution
If you’re concerned about the things you’re breathing in, there are some adjustments you can make. Of course it’s difficult—or nearly impossible—to change the quality of air when you’re out in public. However, doing all you can around the house to limit exposure may help.
1. Buy a mattress cover
Dust mites can severely impact air quality in your home, particularly your bedroom. This can impair breathing, worsen asthma, and lead to stuffiness and coughing. Dust mites thrive in mattresses. The only way to protect yourself from their impact is by covering your mattress in a mattress cover and making sure you clean your sheets regularly.
2. Improve ventilation
Another way to improve ventilation on your home is to allow outside air to come in. Depending on where you, live it might sound like a risky idea. But the EPA suggests one of the best ways to improve air quality and cut pollution in the home is to encourage a free flow of fresh air throughout the premises. Try opening a window to allow fresh air into the home and move around oxygen. There are high levels of pollutants in the home that can be reduced when mixed with fresh air.
3. Air cleaners
There are number of air cleaners and purifiers on the market, but it is unclear how effective they might be. Some surely work better than others, and the better ones are likely to cost more. Focusing on one that offers particle reduction is your best bet, while it also may be worthwhile to purchase a houseplant. However, it’s recommended that it’s not over-watered, therefore increasing the risk of micro-organisms that can act as allergens.
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“Improving Indoor Air Quality,” United States Environmental Protection Agency website, October 14, 2016; https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/improving-indoor-air-quality, last accessed February 13, 2017.
Whiteman, H., “A fifth of dementia cases may be caused by air pollution, study suggests,” Medical News Today website, February 1, 2017; http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315605.php, last accessed February 13, 2017.