Cleaner Air Could Mean Healthier Brains for Older Women

Friday, January 14, 2022 — Everyone knows that clean air means healthier bodies, but new research suggests it may also help with aging minds.

“Our study is important because it is one of the first to show that reducing air pollution over time may benefit the brain health of older women by decreasing their likelihood of developing dementia,” said Shenhui Wang, lead author of the study. Wang is an assistant professor of neuroscience research at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Previous research has linked air pollution exposure later in life to an increased risk of dementia, but it wasn’t clear how improved air quality affects brain health.

To find out, the researchers analyzed data from more than 2,200 American women (ages 74 to 92) who took annual mental function tests between 2008 and 2018 as part of a long-term study. They did not have dementia when the study began.

The researchers used the women’s home addresses to estimate their exposure to air pollution during this period.

Those living in areas with the largest reductions in two air pollutants — fine particulate matter and traffic-related nitrogen dioxide — saw a 14% and 26% reduced risk of dementia, respectively, according to findings published online Jan. 11 in the Journal official. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although the study did not demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship, the brain benefit associated with clean air was consistent regardless of age, economic status, heart disease risk factors, and a genetic risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease known as apolipoprotein E genetic makeup.

“The takeaway message is that reducing exposure to air pollution can promote healthy brain aging,” Wang said in a university news release.

The study authors note that dementia disproportionately affects women.

Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are very costly to the health care system and families, said study co-author Diana Younan, a former senior researcher at the Keck School.

“Our research suggests that tightening air quality standards may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia in older women, thereby reducing the societal burden,” she said.

Resources

  • University of Southern California, Press Release, January 10, 2022

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