Led by Dr. Melinda Power, a team of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a study on the effects of traffic pollution. The evidence uncovered provides significant support to the notion that long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution affects brain functions.
In fact, the team was able to demonstrate a relationship between high-level traffic pollution and poor performance on cognitive tests. In areas tested with high traffic pollution, people 51 years old or older who had lived in the area the majority of their life performed worse than people the same age who had lived primarily in areas with low traffic pollution.
In a secondary study, the research team demonstrated that the airborne particles created as a byproduct of burning diesel fuel had a noteworthy effect on animals. It caused memory problems, and it reduced neuron growth in the brain, which could lead to a wide range of issues long term.
According to Dr. Power, cognitive impairment and decline is an important public health issue, and this research provides a window into how we can begin to deal with that problem. Although not a panacea, limiting exposure to traffic pollution would put our elderly population in a much better position.
There were other factors in play too. For instance, exposure had a much greater effect on smokers and people who were overweight. This is evidence that non-exposure isn’t the only solution. People can help themselves through exercise, diet and not smoking.
During the study, the team examined cognitive tests and lifetime exposure to traffic pollution of nearly 700 men ages 51 to 97. The study focused on men in order to avoid unnecessary variables, but Dr. Power asserted there was no reason to doubt the findings applicability to the female population.
According to the results, men who had lived extended periods in areas with black carbon were 1.3 times more likely to have cognitive scores below the average than men who lived in areas with low pollution. They also found differences depending on the black carbon level. In areas where the carbon was twice as high, it was equivalent to aging an additional two years.
The reasons behind these effects are not entirely clear. Air pollution is a multifaceted mixture of particles and gases, so isolating causes is no simple matter. Nevertheless, we do know that the brain experiences inflammation, oxidative stress and dysfunction.
In a separate study, one conducted at Ohio State University in Columbus, researchers demonstrated that fine-particle exposure (PM2.5s) caused inflammation of the molecules in mice brains. That is a strong indication that a similar effect occurs in the human brain as well.
When the study exposed mice for a period of ten months, those mice displayed significant impairment of memory abilities and learning ability. In addition, the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, was growing neurons at a reduced rate.
According to Laura Fonken, a behavioral neuroscientist, that was strong evidence that traffic pollution in major cities was having a similar effect on the people living there. In addition, there is also overwhelming evidence that air pollution leads to the increased rate of heart attacks, hardened arteries and numerous cardiovascular diseases.
Recently, a UK study estimated that more than twenty major cities and towns in Britain had pollution levels that were twice as much as the World Health Organization’s recommended levels. In addition, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) reported that UK pollution reduces the lifespans of at least 200,000 people by two years.
The UK has some of the worst air pollution rates in Europe. That doesn’t, however, mean that Europe and North America are in the clear. Far too many cities on both continents have dangerously high levels. Governments all over the world still have a lot of work to do concerning pollution. We can’t afford to sit around and wait for that to happen.
The solution is simple: Buy an air purifier that has both HEPA filtration and activated carbon filtration. By doing so, you can eliminate nearly all airborne particulates as well as gases, chemicals, bacteria, viruses and even odors. In fact, a HEPA air purifier is so effective that hospitals around the world use it, and asthma and allergy sufferers can often avoid all symptoms simply by placing one in their home.
We might not know all the specifics, but one thing is clear: traffic pollution is dangerous. Our children are breathing it, and the only way to avoid it is to use proper air filtration in the home. Most people spend as much as 75% of their time in the home, so if we can guarantee healthy air there, we can have a dramatic effect on our long-term health.
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