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Your Environment. Your Health.

Air Pollution Linked to Cognitive Decline

Jennifer Weuve, Sc.D., Francine Laden, Sc.D.
Rush University Medical Center, Harvard School of Public Health
NIEHS Grants R21ES016829 and R01ES017017


NIEHS grantees report that a faster decline in the cognitive function of older women is associated with long-term exposure to particulate matter (PM) air pollution at levels typical of many areas of the United States. This is one of the first studies to examine the role of PM in cognitive decline over time.


The researchers evaluated exposures to both coarse and fine PM in relation to cognitive decline in the Nurses’ Health Study Cognitive Cohort, which included more than 19,000 U.S. women 70 to 81. The investigators performed baseline and follow-up cognitive testing that examined general cognition, verbal memory, category fluency, working memory, and attention. They also used geographic information system (GIS)-based models to estimate exposures over several intervals, including the preceding month and the previous seven to 14 years.


The study showed that higher levels of long-term exposure to both coarse and fine PM are associated with significantly faster cognitive decline. The researchers estimate that a 10-microgram per cubic meter increase in long-term PM exposure was cognitively equivalent to aging by approximately two years. If the findings are confirmed in other studies, reducing air pollution could offer a way to lessen age-related cognitive decline and, because cognitive decline often precedes the development of dementia, a way to reduce the future population burden of dementia.


Citation: Weuve J, Puett RC, Schwartz J, Yanosky JD, Laden F, Grodstein F. 2012. Exposure to particulate air pollution and cognitive decline in older women. Arch Intern Med 172(3):219-227.

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