A recent study from the scientific journal ‘Ecological Economics’ has linked air quality with memory impairment. In the paper, 34,000 people from 15 years of age were studied across 318 geographical areas of England. Researchers mapped pollution by matching levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air to each English local authority district.
It is already known that people living in areas with higher levels of NO2 feel, on average, are less happy than those exposed to less pollution. So, how else could air pollution be affecting human wellbeing? The researchers in Ecological Economics compared the results of 34,000 people who were asked to remember and then recall ten words. Their data has shown that higher levels of NO2 in an area correlate with residents having poorer memory.
NO2 pollution varied dramatically across England. Lowest levels were found on the West coast of the country, where a prevailing South-Westerly wind means that particularly clean air is swept in from the Atlantic Ocean. Comparatively, districts such as Kensington, Chelsea and Islington in central London had up to five times the concentration of NO2.
People living in areas with the cleanest air quality were found to remember approximately half a word more than those living within the most polluted districts. Although seemingly a small increment, the difference of half an extra word is roughly equivalent to the difference between the memory of a 51-60 year-old and a 61-70 year-old. Interestingly, males typically remember one-third of a word less than females, and there is a strong link between declining memory at each new decade of life.
Researchers have stressed that they do not mean to imply that a move from Devon to central London could lead to rapid memory decline. Rather, they suggest that pollution-associated memory loss is a gradual erosion over decades; though robust scientific evidence to back this up is not yet available. Reasons for poor memory could be influenced by a myriad of varying factors such as diet quality, stress levels, sleep quality or even activity levels, therefore it is not easy to draw a direct link with air pollution.
Despite this, laboratory studies have proven that rats’ recollection is impaired by air pollution. And with current memory quality a predictor of later risk of Alzheimer’s disease, it is important not to discount that pollution is generally bad for human health. Along with potential impacts on brain health, high pollution levels are known to be responsible for a third of deaths from lung cancer, strokes, and heart disease.
The World Health Organisation has warned that 90% of people are breathing polluted air, and that toxic air may be just as harmful as smoking tobacco. Polluted air, no matter who you are, is very hard to avoid. Microscopic air pollutants can slip past the body’s defences, causing insidious damage to almost every organ. It is therefore imperative that world leaders wake up to the climate crisis and act fast to reduce fossil fuel combustion. Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement to combat climate change could save a million lives every year by 2050, solely by reducing air pollution.
As such, moving toward a greener more sustainable environment is important to preserve our health; electric vehicle emit zero tailpipe emissions – if everyone in the world were to be driving an EV, pollution would be minimised.