The evidence for the harmful effects of air pollution on our health appears to be increasing every week. A recent study conducted in Rome has shed light on the influence of air pollution on our mental well-being.
Dr. Federica Nobile, from the epidemiology department at Lazio regional health service, discussed the motivation behind the study. “Recent research has connected air pollution to the emergence of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and psychotic episodes. However, these connections have primarily been explored in small sample sizes, making it difficult to apply the findings to a larger population.”
Nobile and his team initially utilized census information from 2011, which included data on over 1.7 million adults residing in Rome. They then cross-referenced this data with records from medical and public health insurance.
Over the course of the next eight years, health records were reviewed for any instances of mental health issues, such as hospital admissions or new prescriptions for antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers.
The researchers examined air pollution levels, traffic noise, and other societal factors such as poverty, unemployment, education, and marital status that could potentially impact mental health.
A correlation was discovered between living in regions with high levels of particle pollution and an increased likelihood of developing schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders. This was supported by an examination of medication prescriptions, which showed that individuals between the ages of 30 and 64 had the strongest link to air pollution.
Based on the data collected in the research, it is feasible to anticipate the advantages of enhancing the air quality in the city. A 10% decrease in Rome’s average particle pollution could potentially decrease the prevalence of these typical mental health issues by 10-30%.
Meeting the air pollution limits proposed by the European Commission for 2030 and following the guidelines set by the World Health Organization would result in even greater improvements.
According to Professor Francesco Forastiere from Italy’s National Research Council and Imperial College London, it is essential to enforce strict measures to decrease human exposure to air pollution. This is crucial for preventing physical illnesses and maintaining mental health.
Understanding of these issues has been slowly improving. Seventy-one years ago, London’s great smog of 1952 led to the deaths of about 12,000 people, mainly from breathing problems, heart attacks and strokes. Research from the 1990s added lung cancer to the list of air pollution impacts but the effects on brain health were overlooked.
In 2002, a research conducted on domesticated dogs in Mexico contributed to findings that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of developing dementia in the future.
Researchers began to study air pollution as a potential cause for schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders after noticing a correlation between living in urban areas and an increased risk for these conditions.
Additional research, including a seven-year study overseen by King’s College London, revealed that air pollution may contribute to the severity and recurrence of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and depression.
Dr. Ioannis Bakolis from King’s College London, who was not a part of the Rome study, stated that the extensive research conducted in Rome offers crucial evidence and strengthens our belief in the connection between air pollution and mental health conditions. This supports previous findings from studies in the UK, US, and Denmark.
The average annual exposure to PM2.5 for residents of Rome is over three times higher than the recommended levels set by the WHO. Bringing air pollution down to these guidelines could have a positive impact on brain health and potentially lessen the burden on psychiatric services, which are already strained due to the pandemic.