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Air pollution harms women's brains

14th February 2012

Exposure to air pollution seems to harm the brains of women, according to a recent US study.

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As a result, a lifetime of air pollution exposure may herald swift mental decline.

Lead researcher Jennifer Weuve, an assistant professor at the Rush Institute for Healthy Ageing in Chicago, said that women who were exposed, over the long term, to high levels of particulate matter, experienced more decline in their cognitive scores than women who did not.

For the study, air monitors with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) combined information on nearly 20,000 women, all of whom were between the ages of 70 and 81.

The information included the addresses where the women lived, and the researchers used the information to make rough estimates of air pollution exposure relating to about a decade of each woman's life.

The data included measurements of six major pollutants, roadways, and wind patterns.

The women took a test over the phone to measure their cognition and short-term memory, once at the beginning of the study and once more after a few years had elapsed.

The researchers found that air pollution in any form, whether the particles were smaller than 2.5 micrometres (what is known as fine particulate matter), or larger (what is known as coarse particulate matter), caused mental decline in women.

Combustion from cars, diesel engines, and industrial estates is one of the main sources of fine particulate matter.

These smaller particles penetrate more deeply into the lungs, and scientists consider them more harmful than coarse particulate matter.

Roads, mining, and construction are one of the main sources of coarse particulate matter.

For any woman, exposure to 10 units of air pollution seemed to take two years from her brain age.

Weuve said that, considered as a phenomenon taking place at the scale of entire populations, such mental decline would have a huge quality on women's quality of life.

She said the mental decline would also have an effect on women's families and the healthcare systems of the societies in which such women lived.

Considered as a whole, the components of air pollution are remarkably diverse.

They include nitric and sulphuric acids, organic chemicals, metallic dust, soil dust and regular dust.

Weuve said that air pollution, as far as dementia was concerned, was unique, in that it could be treated at large.

She said that governments could regulate air pollution through policies, and through technology.

While the reason why pollution causes dementia has yet to be explored, some types of particles have been observed travelling via the nasal passage directly into the brain.

Such direct exposure could trigger brain inflammation, which could ultimately trigger the processes involved in Alzheimer's disease.

But the reason may also have to do with the cardiovascular impact of air pollution exposure.

Rajiv Bhatia, director of environmental health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said he felt it was fairly conclusive that fine particulate matter had effects on the cardiovascular system.

He said that he believed it was possible that air pollution affected the brain, and that while society was making progress in reducing air pollution, there were still many places where levels were steadily increasing.

Under US law, air pollution levels are theoretically not supposed to pass a certain limit.

But people living near busy roadways may not benefit from those laws.

Bhatia said that, since not all areas had EPA air monitors, not all state governments actually took steps to reduce pollution.

He said that, without putting monitors near roadways, state governments had no reason to take action to control air pollution.

 

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