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It’s no secret that air pollution is a serious health hazard. According to the World Health Organization, it triggers lung cancer and other respiratory diseases, as well as heart disease and stroke, causing an estimated 4.2 million deaths worldwide each year. Now a recent study out of China suggests that each breath of polluted air we take could be damaging our brains as well.

Writing in PNAS, Xin Zhang, PhD, a professor at Beijing Normal University, explains that older adults and those who work outside are particularly vulnerable to the cognitive effects of poor air quality. “The effect of air pollution on verbal tests becomes more pronounced as people age, especially for men and the less educated,” she explains.

The findings emerged after researchers reviewed the cognitive-test scores of more than 25,000 people of all ages and genders in 162 Chinese counties and compared their performance with local air-quality conditions. And although the authors could only speculate on the neurological connections between pollution and cognitive decline — pointing to its impact on the brain’s white matter and communication between regions — Zhang suggests the consequences are serious.

“The damage on the aging brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions,” she writes.

The solution, she argues, is as clear as China’s air is murky — tougher air-quality standards. And she need only look at the United States to see the fruits of those regulations: As a recent report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill indicates, air-pollution-related deaths from ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and stroke declined by more than half in the two decades after 1990, when the federal government strengthened the Clean Air Act.

This originally appeared as “Air Pollution May Affect IQ” in the April 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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