Exploring the Connection Between Our Minds and the Air We Breathe
There are many triggers and influences around us at every moment. The news, our families, social media, our jobs – each of these factors influence our mental state. Our reality is that we are always surrounded by things that make us feel worse. New evidence suggests that this also applies to the air that we breathe. We are all aware that low air quality and smog can hurt our respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Dirty air can lead to lung disease, breathing trouble, and even contribute to an early death. Research shows that it can also affect our mental condition. Researchers have found that air pollution can damage children’s cognitive abilities, increase adults’ risk of cognitive decline, and even worsen depression. It is a severe and concerning discovery and an issue that deserves attention.
Most of the research has focused on specific types of pollutants under the umbrella of fine particulate matter. These small particles – 1/30th the width of a human hair – are spewed out into our air by factories, power plants, trucks, and cars. They are pervasive pollutants and are one of the six principal pollutants regulated by air quality standards by the Environmental Protection Agency. Jennifer Weuve, an assistant professor at Rush Medical College, found that older women who were exposed to low air quality experienced a more significant cognitive decline than in women their same age who were exposed to better air. The research used a population of more than 19,000 women, ages 70 to 81. Studies also show that higher exposure to pollution leads to a sharper decline in cognitive abilities.
Pollution harms our youth, as well. Shakira Franco Suglia, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, headed a recent study into this subject. His research included a group of 200 kids, ages from birth to 10. With exposure to higher levels of black carbon, these children achieved worse scoring on memory and IQ tests. Another study conducted by Frederica Perera, of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. She discovered that children exposed to these particles were more likely to experience attention problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression. There have been a ton of studies connecting air pollution and children’s mental health. In almost every case, air pollution was found to worsen the overall wellbeing of children.
While it is becoming evident that air pollution has a connection to cognitive decline, there is more work to be done. For example, scientists still don’t know precisely how or why the harm is caused. Studies with rats were done to simulate pollution levels in the suburbs. Rodents who were exposed to this air pollution had a harder time memorizing a maze and even exhibited depression. When comparing the brains of these rodents to a control group, there were changes to the brains of the rats who were exposed to the polluted air. These alterations included damage to the nerve cells of the hippocampus. This is the region of the brain which governs spatial memory. These studies are not quite conclusive, but they present some worrying information.
As usual, there are still many questions to answer and work to be done. While we don’t have all the answers, we do see a strong correlation between air pollution and our mental health. People exposed to worse air conditions are at a higher risk of cognitive decline and the formation of mental illnesses. While this might be frightening, it’s helpful to note that studies are being done to understand air pollution and its effects. Pollution doesn’t just harm the world around us, it affects the way we breathe and the way we think. The work will continue to be done, and we can expect a greater focus on improving worldwide air quality.
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