Air Pollution Can Affect Senior Mental Decline
November 17, 2012

Link Between Air Pollution And Cognitive Decline In Seniors Discovered

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Fresh air could play an essential role in keeping older adults mentally sharp, as new research has uncovered a link between high levels of air pollution and decreasing cognitive function in seniors.

The research, presented Friday at the Gerontological Society of America's (GSA) 65th Annual Scientific Meeting in San Diego, California, was based upon data obtained by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

"As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air," Dr. Jennifer Ailshire, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Biodemography and Population Health and the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California (USC), said in a statement.

"Air pollution has been linked to increased cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even premature death, in older populations, and there is emerging evidence that exposure to particulate air pollution may have adverse effects on brain health and functioning as well," she added.

Dr. Ailshire and her team studied nearly 15,000 men and women, at least 50 years of age and of Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic descent. All of the subjects participated in the 2004 HRS study, and the data from that survey were compared to the average levels of fine air particulates that year, as recorded by EPA Air Quality System monitors at various locations throughout the US.

"Cognitive function was measured on a scale of 1 to 35 and consisted of tests assessing word recall, knowledge, language, and orientation," GSA officials explained, adding that Ailshire and her colleagues "discovered that those living in areas with high levels of fine air particulate matter scored poorer on the cognitive function tests. The association even remained after accounting for several factors, including age, race/ethnicity, education, smoking behavior, and respiratory and cardiovascular conditions."

"Fine air particulate matter exposures ranged from 4.1 to 20.7 micrograms per cubic meter, and every ten point increase was associated with a 0.36 point drop in cognitive function score," they added. "In comparison, this effect was roughly equal to that of aging three years; among all study subjects, a one-year increase in age was associated with a drop 0.13 in cognitive function score."