How does air quality affect longevity? Brain studies show a useful connection

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get fresh Air can rejuvenate a flagging brain and provide a much-needed boost of energy. But the air we breathe can have hidden side effects long after an afternoon in the great outdoors. Better air quality could even lower the risk of fatal brain disease in some people, according to a new study.

Several studies link poor air quality to a shorter life expectancy, the risk of respiratory problems and the development of the brain disease dementia later in life. On the other hand, the connection between improved Air quality and dementia is not as established. In a recent study released in the diary Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers found that older women living in areas with good air quality had a lower risk of dementia than women living in more polluted places.

Before heading into the hills, living with improved air quality doesn’t mean you have to live in a remote paradise cut off from all particulate matter. Small, manageable steps—including one action that many of us already take every day—can reduce your exposure to polluted air and protect your brain health in the long term.

LONGEVITY HACKS is a regular series of Vice versa about the scientifically based strategies to live better, healthier and longer without medication. Get more in our hacks index.

WHAT THE STUDY FOUND — What most surprises epidemiologists Diana Younan, one of the study’s authors, was that the link between better air quality and the risk of dementia affects older women across the board. (Younan was a senior research associate at USC during the study and is now an epidemiologist at Amgen, working unrelated to the study.)

Regardless of age, education level, location, or even cardiovascular disease, older women who lived in places with better air quality had an overall lower risk of dementia compared to women in places with more air pollution. It seems to be mostly women disproportionately affected by brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which is the most common cause of dementia.

Spending time in nature is known to be good for your health. GC Shutter/E+/Getty Images

WHY IT’S A HACK — A number of genetic and environmental factors can predispose someone to dementia. Proven tips like a balanced diet and daily exercise can help lower the risk — but only so much. Limiting exposure to air pollution can be another good practice to add to the list.

Younan says even some awareness of your air quality is a good start, so checking your area’s air quality index now along with the daily weather is a good routine. From then on, she recommends that you keep windows open and air vents closed on busy routes, for example, so you don’t inhale car exhaust fumes.

If you can afford one, having an air purifier in your home can help, too, she says.

Additionally, a specific practice that many people around the world have been adopting lately can also help prevent exposure to air pollution — it might actually be being strapped to your face right now.

“The thing about the pandemic is that the masks actually reduce your exposure, which is a really nice result,” Younan says Vice versa.

“If people feel comfortable wearing their masks even after the pandemic, that would be great too,” she adds.

Other studies show that face masks made of different materials are good at filtering out fine dust and protecting our sensitive airways from these antagonists.

A studyfor example, studied the effectiveness of face masks against wildfire smoke and found that N95s offered the highest level of protection against pollutants of all sizes. Nevertheless, cotton, synthetic and surgical masks also offer a certain level of protection against fine dust.

You may be able to improve the quality of the air you breathe by practicing wearing masks outdoors in areas of high air pollution.Halfpoint Pictures/Moment/Getty Images

Individual efforts can only go so far, Younan warns. Between 2016 and 2018, when the Trump administration was in power, the concentration of particulate matter in the air increased by six percent. Government regulation is also needed to combat air pollution as a whole.

“The government can only regulate outdoor air pollution at the national level,” she says. Poor air quality, in turn, disproportionately affects people of color and those in lower income brackets. But individual efforts to limit exposure to air pollution can still make a difference, it seems.

SCIENCE IN ACTION — Younan and her team analyzed Data on 2,239 women aged 74 to 92 who were surveyed between 2008 and 2012. The information included the women’s age, place of residence, socioeconomic status and any medical conditions.

The researchers then looked at the air quality for each year in each location and which women went on to develop dementia (398 of them at the end of the study). The women living in places with better air quality were the least likely to develop dementia at the end of the study, while those living in places with the worst air quality were more likely to develop dementia.

HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — In a future study, Younan’s team wants to follow this cohort of women to see if improved air quality can help preserve older people’s brain structure for longer. In particular, they will continue to study correlations between air quality, brain structure and markers of aging in the brain.

It’s also not yet clear if this hack works pre-emptively — meaning if you’re in your 20s or 30s now, it’s not sure how limiting your exposure to air pollution can limit yours Risk of developing dementia later in life.

But we know enough about how pollution affects human health to say that practicing clean air is probably a good idea, despite the lack of certainty on this particular point.

HACK score of 10 — 😷😷😷😷😷😷😷 (7/10 masks for everyday use.)

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