New research on air pollution and Alzheimer’s is a warning for Asia

Scientists are growing more confident that air pollution—especially from particulate matter less than 2.5 microns wide, known as PM 2.5—significantly raises the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, according to a series of separate studies published in July.

The link between neurological disease and air pollution has been suspected for some time, and now data are accumulating to back it up. In one study published July 26, scientists at the University of Southern California found that among women in the US aged 74-92, a 10% decrease in ambient PM 2.5 in the area surrounding their home reduced their likelihood of developing dementia by 14%. A similar study published the same day of people over age 65 in France found a 17% decrease in the likelihood of Alzheimer’s for every microgram of pollutant per cubic meter of air. And a third, published July 9, found that in North Carolina zip codes with elevated levels of PM 2.5, the rate of hospitalizations and deaths from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia was significantly higher than in zip codes with lower levels of PM 2.5. Each of the studies controlled for potentially confounding variables like differences in race and gender (Alzheimer’s is more common in women and in Black people), smoking, and the presence of other environmental pollutants like arsenic in soil.

“It’s already well documented that exposure to PM 2.5 is associated with cardiovascular and other diseases, but within the last few years the number of publications is rising on an increased risk for brain tissue,” said Yuliya Krauchanka, a professor of surgery at the Duke University School of Medicine and co-author of the North Carolina study. “But the brain is usually the most well-protected organ in the body, so it’s a very alarming situation when we see toxins sneaking in through this barrier.”

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