New Study Shows that Air Pollution Affects Cognitive Abilities

Most of us know of the horrible health effects air pollution has on the human race. Researchers have also recently asked, “Is air pollution making us dumber?” If you want the short answer, it is yes. A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows that air pollution also negatively affects cognitive abilities.

Where Did They Get Their Information?

Researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) used information from the China Family Panel Studies longitudinal survey to draw their conclusions. This survey gathered cognitive abilities test scores from over 32,000 people.  To qualify for the study, the people had to be older than 10 years old between 2010 and 2014. They also measured those people’s exposure, both short- and long-term, to air pollution. They measured pollution exposure based on air quality. This includes exposure to sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 10 micrometers.

Which Cognitive Abilities Decreased?

Among the test scores the researchers gathered, they noticed that both verbal and math scores declined with increased exposure to air pollution. Verbal scores had a steeper decrease than math scores, and the pollution affects men more than women. In fact, the scores had a particularly steep drop in older, less educated (a middle school education or less) men. This decrease in cognitive abilities increases people’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia in the future.

cognitive abilities, test scores, air pollution, verbal test scores, math test scores

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Who Suffers the Most?

We have concluded that the elderly are more drastically affected by air pollution, but there are certain geographical places that are more at risk than others. The World Health Organization made a list of the world’s top 20 polluted cities, and all are in developing countries. The people worst affected are those that live in Africa and Asia. Actually, it is not even the people that live in the cities. One study published back in January, found that 75 percent of pollution-related deaths in India were in rural areas

Xiaobo Zhang, a professor at Peking University in China and a member of the IFPRI, commented on the findings. He said, “Our findings on the damaging effect of air pollution on cognition imply that the indirect effect of pollution on social welfare could be much larger than previously thought.” Test scores are not the only aspects of life affected by damaged cognitive abilities. This affects the people’s ability to communicate and make sound, logical decisions. In developing countries, this could hurt their economy.

Unfortunately, it is also the poor in developing countries that suffer. Those with more money are able to purchase appliances that filter their air and water, leaving them nowhere near as hurt as those who cannot afford it. The others have to deal with pollution throughout their daily routines.

What Can We Do?

There are several health effects linked to air pollution, and now we know that it also decreases cognitive abilities. Though we cannot change the entire economy of developing countries, we can do all we can to lower the air pollution we create on a daily basis. You can do this by limiting how much you drive or using public transportation, refraining from burning trash, and conserving energy at home.

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Lacey Jolley

I love exploring, experiencing new places, and eating good food! I'm amazed every day at how well the Earth provides for us, and I want to return the favor. I hope to help others learn how we can make our world a better, cleaner place.

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