It only takes a few weeks of air pollution to reduce cognitive performance

Brittany A. Roston - May 3, 2021, 2:08pm CDT
It only takes a few weeks of air pollution to reduce cognitive performance

Breathing polluted air for only a few weeks may be enough to reduce cognitive performance, according to a new study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Air pollution comes from many sources, including cigarettes, charcoal grills, gasoline cars, and natural events like forest fires. There is some good news, however, as the same study found that common NSAID pain relievers may help reduce the impact.

Many places have regulations in place to reduce emissions and address smog. However, the new study points out that there are many potential sources of short-term air pollution exposure that one may come across at work and in daily life, such as sitting in traffic. This exposure may have a negative impact on cognitive performance.

The findings were based on data from the Normative Aging Study; it pertained to 954 participants described as older white men from the Boston region. The researchers looked into exposure to fine particulate matter PM2.5, black carbon, and cognitive performance using a couple of different assessments.

The team linked declines in cognitive performance scores with exposure to ‘elevated average’ PM2.5 air pollution, likewise finding that participants who took NSAIDs ultimately experienced fewer negative effects from the pollution exposure. The researchers note that this doesn’t mean there’s a direct link between cognitive performance and taking these pain relievers, however.

Rather, the study suggests that aspirin and other NSAIDs help reduce the impact of brain changes that result from breathing air pollution, reducing the resulting negative effects. This study, which focused specifically on short-term exposure, joins a larger body of research on the long-term cognitive ramifications of air pollution exposure, including dementia and smaller brain volume.

The study’s senior author Andrea Baccarelli, MD, Ph.D., explained:

Despite regulations on emissions, short-term spikes in air pollution remain frequent and have the potential to impair health, including at levels below that usually considered hazardous. Taking aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs appears to mitigate these effects, although policy changes to further restrict air pollution are still warranted.


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