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New Study Links Rise In Urban Pollution With Increased Dementia Risk

Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias impact almost 2% of the U.S. population today. Not a specific disease, dementia is a group of conditions characterized by the impairment of at least two brain functions, such as memory loss and judgment.

And, like with most health trends, the rate of dementia in the U.S. is also moving in the wrong direction, meaning whatever is happening is not getting better. According to a study published earlier this year, it is estimated that rates of dementia will triple worldwide and double in the U.S. by 2050. If we want to turn this around, we need to start mitigating the risk factors for dementia today.

While getting your brain fried is hardly a precise medical term, we know that something is happening to our brains leading to this disease’s development. There is still so much we don’t understand about dementia, but we do know that your risk profile goes up with age. 

We also know that diet plays a part in determining someone’s risk profile for developing dementia as they age. The more research that gets done, the more evidence suggests that the connection between our brains and our gut microbiome could play a key role in mitigating our risk for developing dementia long term. 

But there is also something else we need to watch out for that could be frying our brains. New research suggests that exposure to traffic-related air pollutants significantly increases the risk of dementia. 

A meta-analysis of over 90 million people showed that the risk for dementia increased by 3% for every one microgram per cubic meter rise in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure. Fine particulate matter is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets commonly produced from road traffic exhaust. 

Researchers were surprised that they could calculate such a precise correlation between the rise in fine particulate matter and the risk profile for dementia in such a large sample size of participants. This gives the study substantial validity and raises some major red flags for anyone spending significant time in traffic or walking through busy cities. 

Air pollution has been a known risk factor for dementia, meaning that is has been on scientists’ radars for a while. Still, until this study, researchers have been unable to pinpoint the exact impact of fine particulate matter on someone’s risk profile. It is important to note that we still do not know how the duration of particulate matter exposure affected dementia risk. How much higher is the risk profile for someone that has spent their entire life living in a crowded city versus someone that only spent a few years there? We still don’t know, but we know that minimizing your exposure to fine particulate matter is key to your overall health and brain health in particular. 

The key takeaway? Sitting in traffic is the worst, and not just because it is annoying to have to sit there and wait to get to your destination. All that road traffic exhaust isn’t doing our health any favors.  

Does that mean you need to pack your bags and escape the city? No. That is unrealistic for most people, but it is important that you acknowledge that air quality is a risk factor you should be aware of if you want to optimize your health. 

Curious about the air quality in your area? You can check out what the fine particulate matter levels look like near you using this tool. 

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