Researchers have found a link between exposure to air pollution and brain atrophy and memory loss. The study focused on the effects of fine particles, also known as PM2.5 particles, on people’s brain and how these might lead to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
As reported in the journal Brain, the team saw that women aged 73 to 87 exposed to PM2.5 were more likely to experience a greater decline in memory, as well as exhibit Alzheimer’s-like changes to the brain. The study was conducted on 998 women from across the United States.
"This is the first study to really show, in a statistical model, that air pollution was associated with changes in people's brains and that those changes were then connected with declines in memory performance," Andrew Petkus, an assistant professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, said in a statement. "Our hope is that by better understanding the underlying brain changes caused by air pollution, researchers will be able to develop interventions to help people with or at risk for cognitive decline."
The women in the study were part of the landmark Women’s Health Initiative, which was launched in 1993 to better understand conditions such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and other conditions. The women in the study had up to two brain scans five years apart, and the team used a machine-learning algorithm to identify any changes in the brain that are typical of dementia.
The Women’s Health Initiative also provided important environmental data about the patients, and the team was able to extrapolate the impact of fine particles on these women. The exposure is certainly not the full story, but it raises some important questions on the possible role of pollution in making people more susceptible to this kind of disease.
"This study provides another piece of the Alzheimer's disease puzzle by identifying some of the brain changes linking air pollution and memory decline. Each research study gets us one step closer to solving the Alzheimer's disease epidemic," Petkus said.
Over 30 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease worldwide. The condition is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and there is currently no known cure or effective treatment.