More and more evidence suggests a connection between air pollution and an increased risk of dementia and stroke.
Researchers in the UK are studying the impact of air pollution on dementia and brain health.
The second most common cause of death worldwide is stroke, responsible for approximately 11% of all deaths. Currently, approximately 50 million individuals have dementia, but this number is projected to reach 150 million by 2050.
One could easily attribute this to the inevitable result of an aging society.
Researchers examined the well-being of over 413,000 individuals involved in the UK Biobank initiative. All participants were aged 40 to 69 and did not have a history of dementia, cancer, or stroke at the beginning of the research. The study monitored their health and investigated the link between air pollution and the progression from a state of good health to developing a stroke, dementia, or both. Information was also gathered on their habits, such as smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake, and dietary choices, as well as their socioeconomic standing.
In a span of 11 years, 6,484 individuals experienced a stroke, 3,813 developed dementia, and 376 had both a stroke and dementia. After adjusting for other risk factors, the study revealed connections between prolonged exposure to air pollution and the onset of dementia, as well as the development of dementia following a stroke.
According to Prof Frank Kelly from Imperial College London, a member of the research team, the recently discovered information helps to explain the impact of air pollution on the changing development of stroke and dementia, even when levels are below the UK’s current air quality standards.
By 2040, the Environment Act aims to reduce particle pollution to half of the World Health Organization’s recommended level. Failing to reach this goal promptly puts thousands at risk of developing illnesses like stroke and dementia due to prolonged exposure to polluted air.
In 2022, a panel of specialists from the UK government examined 69 studies and determined that air pollution likely speeds up the decline of cognitive abilities in older individuals and raises their chances of developing dementia. Additionally, another review pointed out an increasing amount of research on the connection between air pollution and the onset of frailty and cognitive impairment in the elderly.
Prof Gordon McFiggans and his team at the University of Manchester have developed a facility to investigate the impact of various air pollutants on brain health.
In the middle of the setup is a transparent plastic chamber, also known as a reactor. In a specific area of the lab, there is a Volkswagen diesel engine attached to a movable platform. The ducts lead to an external trailer where a contemporary wood-burning stove is located. In a clever nod to Douglas Adams, there is another set of ducts that connect to a compact frying pan. Behind a screen made of quartz, there are halogen bulbs and xenon-arc lamps that imitate the natural sunlight.
Volunteers can now breathe the air inside the chamber thanks to the installation of pipework.
The group of volunteers consists of individuals over the age of 50 who have a familial background of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. McFiggans and his colleagues produce standardized blends of cooking emissions, cleaning agents, diesel fumes, and woodstove smoke to replicate the levels found in polluted air in major cities. The volunteers undergo cognitive assessments before and after inhaling the air in the chamber. Lung cells are also subjected to the chamber air, and particles are gathered for additional research.
McFiggans stated that their goal is to show policymakers how to measure the health impacts of various forms of pollution, which could then be used to create guidance and potentially policies focused on reducing and avoiding harm.