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New Study Links Air Pollution to Dementia

Health + Wellness
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There's no question that air pollution is bad for your body, from lung cancer to heart disease. Even President Trump's coal-friendly U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that dirty air can increase adverse health effects and cause death.

Now, researchers from Arizona State University have determined another air pollution risk: dementia.


The new paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, compared fifteen years of Medicare records for 6.9 million older adults with the EPA's air quality data. They tested whether these individuals' onset of dementia was correlated with long-term exposure to tiny pollution particles known as PM2.5.

Indeed, the researchers found that a 1 microgram-per-cubic-meter (μg/m³) increase of PM2.5 over the course of a decade increases a person's odds of receiving a dementia diagnosis by 1.3 percentage points.

PM2.5, which is particulate matter with a length of 2.5 microns or less, is often a cocktail of toxins from power plants, automobiles and other industrial sources.

The World Health Organization has PM2.5 guidelines of 10 μg/m³—a threshold that 95 percent of the world's population does not meet.

The good news is that average PM2.5 concentrations have decreased in the U.S. from 13.5 μg/m³ in 2000 to 8.0 μg/m³ in 2017, thanks to the EPA's strict air pollution regulations.

As the paper was authored by economists, they concluded that air pollution regulations have helped the U.S. save money to the tune of $150 billion since the year 2000, as Slate noted from the study.

The bad news is the Trump administration could roll back these protections. Last month, in efforts to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that regulates coal plants, EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler released the "Affordable Clean Energy Rule," which projects 470 and 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to increased rates of PM2.5.

Other studies have found a link between air pollution and damage to the brain. A study in May suggested that many heavy metals found in the air may make it into brain tissue, and those pollutants are activating genes that may lead to cancers or neurodegenerative disorders. Additionally, a China-based study published last month found that high levels of toxic air "is equivalent to having lost a year of education."

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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