How Air Pollution Can Lead To Neurological Issues

Air pollution contains various toxins that affect the human body and brain in myriad ways. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), air pollution has been recognized as a significant source of respiratory and cardiovascular problems since the 1970s. We have long known that breathing in toxins from polluted air can increase the risk of developing life-threatening lung and heart diseases. More recent research also highlights a dangerous link between air pollution and neurological issues.

A 2020 study published in The Lancet by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health linked air pollution to an increase in hospitalization with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other dementias. The long-term study looked at data from 63 million adults aged 65 and over for 17 years. Findings analyzed the link between fine particulate pollution concentrations (PM 2.5) and neurological disease in cities and towns across the United States. Study results showed a significant increase in the number of first hospital admissions with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's relative to exposure to PM 2.5 concentrations in the U.S. So what does that mean for you?

Pollution linked to increase in dementias

The New York State Department of Health defines PM 2.5 as tiny particles or droplets in the air that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The biggest ones are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair, while thousands of the smallest particles could fit on the head of a pin. These tiny particles stem from vehicle exhaust, power plants, heating fuels like coal and oil, and forest fires. The acceptable long-term standard for PM 2.5 by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air per day.

However, the Harvard study showed that neurodegenerative disease is linearly linked to rising PM 2.5 concentrations, even below the standard annual threshold. These findings suggest that long-term exposure to even approved levels of PM 2.5 can negatively impact brain health. In the study, the risk of first-time hospitalization for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other dementias rose 13% for every five micrograms of PM 2.5 per cubic meter. 

This type of pollution doesn't stay outdoors. Some particles can easily enter your home or workplace, so what can you do to protect yourself? More data must be collected and more solutions presented before we can come up with many concrete answers. But for now, air cleaners can help protect your home and workspace from air pollution (via EPA), and moving to areas with less pollution could help protect mental health.