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Particulate matter 2.5, one of the air pollutants which is known to worsen health conditions like asthma, heart attack among others, has also been found to be a reason behind declining memory in older women.
A new study has presented that women in their 70s and 80s who were exposed to higher levels of air pollution experienced greater declines in memory and more Alzheimer's-like brain atrophy than their counterparts who breathed cleaner air.
"This is the first study to really show, in a statistical model, that air pollution was associated with changes in people's brains and that those changes were then connected with decline in memory performance," said Andrew Petkus, assistant professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.
"Our hope is that by better understanding the underlying brain changes caused by air pollution, researchers will be able to develop interventions to help people with or at risk for cognitive decline," Petkus added.
Fine particles, also called PM2.5 particles, are about 1/30th the width of a human hair strand. They originate from traffic exhaust, smoke and dust and their tiny size allows them to remain airborne for long periods, get inside buildings, be inhaled easily, and reach and accumulate in the brain.
Fine particle pollution is associated with asthma, cardiovascular disease, lung disease and premature death.
Previous research has suggested that fine particle pollution exposure increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.
What scientists haven't known is whether PM2.5 alters brain structure and accelerates memory decline.
For this study, researchers used data from 998 women, aged 73 to 87, who had up to two brain scans five years apart as part of the landmark Women's Health Initiative.
Those brain scans were scored on the basis of their similarity to Alzheimer's disease patterns by a machine learning tool that had been "trained" via brain scans of people with Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers also gathered information about where these participants lived, as well as environmental data from those locations to estimate their exposure to fine particle pollution.
When all that information was combined, researchers could see the association between higher pollution exposure, brain changes and memory problems -- even after adjusting to take into account differences in income, education, race, geographic region, cigarette smoking and other factors.
"This study provides another piece of the Alzheimer's disease puzzle by identifying some of the brain changes linking air pollution and memory decline," Petkus said.
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