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Research uncovers stunning factor behind nearly 200,000 cases of dementia each year: 'Toxins for the brain'

Researchers focused on particle pollution.

Factor behind nearly 200,000 cases of dementia each year

Photo Credit: iStock

For years, health issues, like heart attacks, respiratory problems, and decreased lung function, have been linked to air pollution. 

Now, new research has added another disease to the laundry list of health issues that may be caused by dirty air: dementia. 

What happened? 

CBS News reported that new estimates from researchers published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine showed that annually nearly 188,000 dementia cases in the U.S. may have been caused by air pollution. 

The study, one of the latest to spotlight health risks from air pollution, looked at how specific causes of air pollution seem to be more strongly tied to dementia than others. 

It indicated exposure to pollution from wildfires and agriculture as having the strongest links to increasing a person's risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia later in life.

Research findings were based on survey data that spanned decades and is backed by the National Institutes of Health. The data was then combined with air quality modeling, according to CBS. 

"They model all sources at once: coal-fired power plants, agriculture, wildfires, traffic — all these different emission sources — and then they turn off the source in the model one at a time. And then they can see the difference in what levels are there with the emissions sources and what are there without them," Sara Adar, associate chair of epidemiology at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, told CBS News.

Researchers focused on particulate matter with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller in air pollution that is breathable and found that direct emissions aren't the only concern. 

In addition to the smoke directly from wildfires, other toxic molecules travel with the smoke as fires burn through communities. Farming was also found to worsen serious air pollution. 

"Farms will release a lot of ammonia gas," Adar said, "and then in the air with the sunlight and other pollutants out there, they'll react to make particles, and those particles are what we see are likely toxins for the brain."

Why are these findings concerning?

With wildfires and agriculture being the leading causes, if we don't change our habits, we will likely see even more cases of dementia apparently caused by air pollution. 

Agriculture is another significant contributor to air pollution, with livestock accounting for 14.5% of human-made planet-heating pollution, according to the United Nations. Overall, agriculture makes up over 11% of this type of pollution, per the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Further, extreme temperatures and less rainfall — both becoming increasingly common, at least in some places, as our planet heats up — make for longer and worse fire seasons, meaning air pollution from wildfires will only worsen as well. 

What can I do to help?

To protect ourselves and others from this risk, we must all work to reduce the amount of pollution released into the air. 

"Unlike many other common risk factors for dementia (e.g., hypertension, stroke, and diabetes)," the study's authors wrote, "exposures to air pollution can be modified at the population level, making it a prime target for large-scale prevention efforts." 

We can do this by moving away from single-use plastics, switching from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles, and utilizing clean energy sources whenever possible. 

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