Air pollution increases your risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other dementias, major study finds


AIR pollution could increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other dementias, a major study has found.

People who live near busy roads were found to be more likely to develop the devastating conditions, according to US researchers.

Alzheimer's and Parkinson's could be caused by air pollution, according to a major new study

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Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s could be caused by air pollution, according to a major new studyCredit: Getty – Contributor

Experts say a study of more than 63 million Americans also showed they face a higher risk of less common forms of dementia and other neurological disorders.

It’s believed microscopic particles released into the atmosphere by cars and factories are toxic to grey matter.

Known as PM2.5s, they can be inhaled deep into the lungs where they irritate the lining and enter the bloodstream before travelling to the brain.

Even low levels were found to be dangerous, with women more vulnerable than men.

For every increase of five micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3) there was a 13 percent greater likelihood of dementia or Parkinson’s.

This remained the case below the US Environmental Protection Agency’s current supposedly safe guidelines of an annual average maximum of 12 μg/m3.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

The damage caused to the brain by Alzheimer’s disease causes the symptoms commonly associated with dementia.

Indeed, it is the most common trigger for dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is named after the doctor who first described it in medical literature, Alois Alzheimer.

A hallmark of the disease is the build-up of amyloid beta proteins in the brain, to cause plaques.

This results in the loss of connections between nerve cells in the brain, and ultimately the death of those cells and a loss of brain tissue.

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Those people living with Alzheimer’s also have a shortage of some key chemicals in the brain, which help transmit messages.

A lack of these chemicals means the brain is unable to process some messages as it would previously.

The team at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health in Boston, who were behind the research, said the recommendations need to be stricter.

Co-lead author Xiao Wu, a doctoral student in biostatistics, said: “The 2020 report of the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention, and care has added air pollution as one of the modifiable risk factors for these outcomes.

“Our study builds on the small but emerging evidence base indicating that long-term PM2.5 exposures are linked to an increased risk of neurological health deterioration, even at PM2.5 concentrations well below the current national standards.”

Biggest study yet

The findings published in The Lancet Planetary Health are based on hospital admissions data from 63,038,019 Medicare patients between 2000 and 2016.

Levels of exposure to PM2.5s were estimated from their zip – or postal – codes.

The nationwide analysis is the biggest of its kind to date.

The researchers said: “Air pollution was significantly associated with an increased risk of hospital admissions for several neurological disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other dementias.”

Women, white people, and urban populations were particularly susceptible, the study found.

‘Stricter policies needed’

The results stood after taking into account other factors linked to the illnesses like socioeconomic status.

Co-senior author Dr Antonella Zanobetti said: “Our US-wide study shows the current standards are not protecting the ageing American population enough – highlighting the need for stricter standards and policies that help further reduce PM2.5 concentrations and improve air quality overall.”

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About a third of a person’s risk of developing dementia remains unexplained – pointing to the potential involvement of environmental factors.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting air pollution could accelerate cognitive ageing – triggering Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

One study by Southern California University found it may be behind more than a fifth of cases worldwide.

Another from Toronto University showed people living within 50 metres of a major road were 12 per cent more likely to develop dementia.

They found levels of fine pollutants were ten times higher compared to being 150 metres away. Inhaling particulate matter is also known to affect the heart and lungs.

Last year an air pollution map identified almost 2,000 locations across the UK that exceeded safety limits – endangering the health of millions.

In the UK more than 850,000 people are living with incurable dementia – a figure set to rise to two million by 2050.

Campaigners in Britain have cautioned that the most recent study from the US has its limitations.

Fiona Carragher, from the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “While this study adds to the evidence that air pollution could raise your dementia risk, we still need to know how particulate pollution might be causing changes in the brain, and if these lead to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.

“It’s also important to remember that this study only looked at people with dementia admitted to hospital and we can’t rule out the possibility of other factors being involved.

“As the number of people with dementia in the UK is set to rise to a million by 2025 it is critical the Government commits to doubling dementia research funding to allow researchers to urgently address these kinds of urgent questions.”

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