Particle Pollution Linked with Risk for Dementia

The summer of 2023 has seen many extreme weather events and devastating wildfires. The long-term environmental and human impact is yet unknown. Still, recent research shows a link between developing dementia and exposure to higher concentrations of particle pollution – including that from agriculture, emission sources and wildfires. 

According to a recent CNN Health report, a new study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, analyzed data from 27,857 survey participants between 1998 and 2016.  About 15 percent of participants developed dementia during the study timeframe; all of whom lived in areas with higher concentrations of particle pollution than those who didn’t develop dementia. 

Particle pollution is a combination of solid and liquid airborne droplets that may include dirt, dust, soot or smoke.  Particulates may originate from construction sites, agriculture, coal or natural gas-fueled manufacturing, unpaved roads, cars, or wildfires.  Particle pollution from agriculture may also contain high levels of pesticides that can be neurotoxic, affecting human and animal brains. 

Wildfire smoke is not only comprised of burning forests, but can also include homes, businesses, gas stations, and other buildings – releasing an array of hazardous chemicals into the air.  People can breathe in tiny particles from this type of air pollution, which may find their way into the lungs or bloodstream, causing irritation and inflammation.  Long-term exposure to particle pollution is associated with an increased risk of cancer, depression, breathing problems and cardiovascular issues. 

With a rapidly aging population, the incidence of dementia is expected to rise sharply over the next 20 to 30 years.  And because of the connection between air pollution and dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association considers increasing rates of air pollution and growing cases of dementia a severe public health crisis.  

Although the exact mechanism with which particle pollution leads to increased rates of dementia has not been pinpointed, researchers suggest that tiny particles may cause brain cell death, or trigger changes to inflammatory proteins that have a harmful effect on the brain.   Air pollution may also worsen existing heart conditions, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.