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New Research Highlights Dementia Risk from Air Pollution

A new report is urging action to be taken to include brain health within net-zero strategies. Based on a body of research, air pollution is increasing our risk of mental health problems and dementia.

Background to the report 

Previous studies have demonstrated an increase in mental health problems as a consequence of exposure to air pollution – in February, based on 11 years of research on 500,000 individuals living in the UK, it was found that long-term exposure to relatively low levels of pollution can increase people’s risks of depression and anxiety. Consequently, the researchers, from the universities of Oxford and Beijing and Imperial College London, said their findings suggested a need for stricter standards or regulations for air pollution control.

Now, new findings are highlighting the risks of dementia – Imperial College London’s Department for Health and Social Care committee, headed by Prof Frank Kelly, reviewed 69 studies and concluded it was likely that air pollution accelerated cognitive decline in elderly people and increased the risk of developing dementia. Based on the findings, it is likely that the deterioration of brain health happens slowly from the polluted air people breathe everyday as pollutants entering the circulatory system, have a negative impact on blood flow to the brain.

Kelly stated “Dementia is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century. Recognition that air pollution might accelerate the decline in cognitive function and contribute to the development of dementia came as a surprise when such an association was first postulated. Logic suggested that air pollution would affect our lungs, then research found that circulatory diseases were also affected by poor air quality. It didn’t take long for researchers to ask if other organs like the brain were affected as well.”

What is the report calling for?

The latest report urges a thorough examination of current policies to expedite measures that minimize our vulnerability to air pollution. This includes the establishment of low-pollution school zones and the creation of communities that are accommodating for individuals with dementia. Additionally, the report emphasizes the integration of health, particularly brain health, into net zero strategies.

Prof Brian Castellani of the University of Durham, director of the new report, said: “A major step change is improving urban life, for example road congestion, green spaces, indoor air quality, ultra-low emission zones, biking and pedestrian lanes, as well as tackling health and economic inequalities. We also need policies to recognise that even legal limits of air pollution can be harmful and potentially worsen the situation of people living with dementia, neurodegenerative disease or early life brain health issues.”

Final thought

This new research highlights the huge level of detriment air pollution has to people. Air pollution has long been implicated in a number of respiratory disorders but, as research develops, a growing body of evidence is establishing a link with the mental impacts. 

Air pollution continues to negatively impact communities, often at dangerous levels, as shown in London. 
However, the Government’s passing of new legally binding air quality guidelines earlier this year that allow more than double the levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) than equivalent targets set by the World Health Organisation, calls into question whether the Government will take this new research seriously. The British Safety Council has warned that the Government’s targets fall well short of what is needed to keep people safe.

NHS Innovation & Life Sciences Commission

Curia’s Dementia Commission is uniquely bringing national, regional and local leaders together to implement a plan to set out a plan to improve the life chances of all people living with dementia. Our commissioners will help the Curia research team produce solutions to improve implementation. Case studies on dementia and good examples of best practice will feature at a series of inquiry sessions and in the final report.

Three roundtable inquiries will create a vision for what the environment needs to look like to support people with neurodegenerative conditions, namely dementia and be ready for future treatment pathways. The roundtables will produce recommendations for how outcomes can be improved. Stakeholders will include clinical leads, commissioners and regulators including NICE, NHS England and patient organisations. Each roundtable will have a remit to look at how pre-existing policy can be implemented, identifying where gaps exist in the policy landscape and setting a series of recommendations to explore the improvement in the system for patients with a neurodegenerative condition.

Curia will publish the findings at a Parliamentary launch alongside the reports from roundtables to ensure maximum engagement.

To sign up to our first inquiry session on Monday 22nd May 13:00-15:00, see below:

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