Exploring the Ozarks Outdoors: freshare.net

Poor Air Quality Means Poor Test Scores for Senior Citizens

By Robert J. Korpella

First posted on 11-21-2012


No wonder so many seniors settle in the Ozarks after retirement. Or in the desert southwest, or even in parts of Florida for that matter. New research demonstrates that areas of high air pollution, something we do not experience much here in the Ozarks, often leads to cognitive dysfunction in older adults.

The study’s findings are based on data from both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Health and Retirement Study. Dr, Jennifer Ailshire, a PhD at the University of Southern California, performed the analysis.

“As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air,” Ailshire said. “Air pollution has been linked to increased cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even premature death, in older populations, and there is emerging evidence that exposure to particulate air pollution may have adverse effects on brain health and functioning as well.”

The study included data taken from 14,793 white, black, and Hispanic men and women aged 50 and older who participated in the Health and Retirement Study. Ailshire linked that information with the EPA’s air quality data for fine particulate matter across the country. Cognitive function was measured through testing of word recall, knowledge, language, and orientation.

After comparing the two volumes of data, Ailshire found that people living in areas prone to fine air particulate matter scored lower on cognitive tests. She factored out other traits—such as age, education, smoking habits, and respiratory and cardiovascular conditions—that could influence the results. Even when these traits were removed, the cognitive issues remained.

The study considered fine air particulate matter exposures that ranged from 4.1 to 20.7 micrograms per cubic meter. Every 10 point increase in exposure levels resulted in a .36 point drop in the individual’s cognitive function score. For comparison purposes, the point drop was about equal to that of aging three years.

This was the first study that showed how exposure to pollution adversely affects the cognitive functions of people across the nation. The implication is that small pollution particulates—those so tiny they easily embed themselves in the brain and lungs after being inhaled—are an important environmental risk factor where slowed cognitive function is concerned.

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