Can Air Pollution Lead to Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease robs millions of people of the joy of their retirement years. Instead of spending days playing with their grandchildren, sufferers may struggle to remember their names. Many can no longer live independently and lament burdening their family members.
Scientists have struggled to discover the root cause of this condition. Recently, researchers found a link between high levels of air pollution and Alzheimer’s disease. While the findings will hopefully create enough alarm to bring change in environmental policies, for many people, improvements may come too late.
In the study, researchers followed nearly 1,000 women who did not have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The subjects ranged in age from 73-87 and spanned 11 years. During this time, scientists performed cognitive tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain atrophy. They then matched the test data to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data on air pollution levels at the women’s resident addresses.
They found that lower cognitive ability scores correlated with greater exposure to PM 2.5, particulate matter that is one of the deadliest toxins known to humans. You can see these particulates when you look at a city from a distance. The hazy smog lying over the urban region consists of these poisons. PM 2.5 refers to the smallest type of this matter, which can enter your bloodstream through your lungs.
Some scientists theorize that these particulates cause cellular changes that lead to the signature plaques seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Others conjecture that they create inflammation in the brain, causing damage. Either way, the result is lowered cognitive function and difficulty with activities of daily living. Researchers involved in the study noted that rates of the disorder increase in minority populations, who are more likely to live in urban environments.
There are many factors that can influence one’s Alzheimer’s risk. For example, researchers have found the bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis in the brains of people with dementia. These bacteria exist in the mouths of people with gum disease. High blood pressure also increases your risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
You can help decrease your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by making the following lifestyle changes:
- Maintain a healthy diet: Reduce or eliminate your consumption of red or processed meats and prepackaged convenience foods. Many of these contain high levels of sodium. Some commercial soup brands, for example, include a full day’s worth of your recommended intake of this mineral.
- Hold the salt shaker: One teaspoon of salt contains all your recommended sodium intake for one day.
- Work it out: Regular exercise gets your heart pumping faster, but it decreases your blood pressure overall.
- Quit smoking and drink in moderation: Smoking narrows your blood vessels, raising your blood pressure. Drinking in moderation — one drink per day — can lower blood pressure, but drinking to excess increases it.
To date, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Treatments focus on slowing the progression of the disorder and protecting the safety of the patient. Doctors use two categories of drugs to slow memory decline — cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. Cholinesterase inhibitors preserve a chemical messenger depleted in the brains of these patients. Memantine works on a slightly different communication pathway. Doctors also use antidepressants to manage the behavioral changes associated with the disorder.
Safety precautions for patients with Alzheimer’s include establishing set locations for keeping important items in the home. Patients can use medication reminder services to ensure they take their doses at the correct time. They can remove excess furniture and throw rugs to reduce the risk of injury from falls. Caregivers for patients with the disease can establish automatic payments for bills to ensure the electricity and water get paid on time.
Hopefully, the recently discovered link between Alzheimer’s risk and air pollution will inspire government officials to take meaningful action to reduce particulate levels. In the meantime, making lifestyle changes to reduce other risks may remain your best defense against the disease.