Air Pollution and Cognition

Air Pollution and Cognition
Photo by Fred Rivett / Unsplash

While there exists evidence regarding the severely harmful effects of air pollution on respiratory health, limited evidence can be found in terms of the consequences on cognition. Particulate matters (PM 2.5 & PM 10) are hazardous due to their ability to penetrate the lungs and affect the blood flow and circulation, negatively influencing cognitive performance.

Most of the population in developing countries is exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution. With the rapid pace of urbanization and the struggle to put food on the plate every day by the majority of the population, air pollution may not make up to the list of things to be worried about. In India alone, the entire population, i.e., 1.4 billion people, are exposed to unhealthy levels of ambient PM 2.5 (World Bank, 2021). PM 2.5 is the most harmful pollutant that can significantly impact human health. The burden of air pollution also remains unequally distributed among the population. Long-term exposure has resulted in millions of deaths in India.

PM 2.5 Pollution in Major Indian Cities: 2015-2018

Cognitive abilities are critical in shaping human behaviour and decision-making. The impact of air pollution on cognitive ability hinders human capital development. The high cost of long-term air pollution exposure is linked with lost labour productivity. This can have significant implications in terms of mental acuity as it is critical to human productivity. Although studies have shown a significant association between cognitive decline and air pollutants, poor cognitive outcomes are difficult to measure compared to other health problems. Carbon monoxide has been shown to be associated with heart conditions and frequent emergency room visits (Schlenker & Walker, 2011). Headache, confusion, and dizziness are diagnosed to be caused by monoxide poisoning due to its recurrent exposure.

Significantly, the robust evidence on the long-term exposure to higher pollutant levels is linked with incidences of dementia (Chen et al., 2017). A longitudinal US-China study monitored the maths, and verbal skills of about 20,000 people found that the negative impact of air pollution worsens as age increases. Air pollution has been called a ‘silent killer’. The chemistry of our brain is relentlessly affected by many pollutants in various ways- for example, toxins can directly enter the brain through tiny passageways.

The harmful impacts of air pollution can make an extremely long list. Depression, migraines, pneumonia, strokes, and, latest, intelligence are influenced by the abysmal air. 10 out of 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. 91% of the world’s population resides in areas that far exceed the pollution limits set by the WHO guidelines. Air pollution needs to be tackled on a war footing, and polluted air knows no boundaries. Considering the bone-deep destructive impacts, air pollution rests as one of the biggest threats currently faced by humanity.