Short-term exposure to forest fires, smog, second-hand smoke from charcoal grills, and gridlock traffic can compromise your cognition. According to a new study on 954 older white men from the Greater Boston area, exposure to air pollution, even over the course of a few weeks, can impede mental performance.
Earlier studies in children, adults, and the aging population have established the role of long-term exposure to air pollutants in decreasing brain volume, impairing cognition, and developing dementia. The study, published in an article in Nature Aging titled, “Short-term air pollution, cognitive performance and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug use in the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study,” is among the first to explore the mental effects of short-term air pollution exposures and the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to mitigate these effects.
The study led by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health shows reductions in cognitive scores upon exposure to ambient fine particulate matter (2.5 microns in size, PM2.5) and black carbon for about 28 days is significantly less in people taking NSAIDs like aspirin.
“Despite regulations on emissions, short-term spikes in air pollution remain frequent and have the potential to impair health, including at levels below that usually considered hazardous,” said senior author Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, chair of the department of environmental health sciences. “Taking aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs appears to mitigate these effects, although policy changes to further restrict air pollution are still warranted.”
As part of the study, the researchers show elevated air pollution is associated with declines in GCF (Global Cognitive Function) and MMSE (Mini-Mental State Examination) scores. Men who took NSAIDs experienced fewer adverse short-term impacts of air pollution exposures on cognitive health compared to participants who did not take NSAIDs, though there were no direct associations between recent NSAID use and cognitive performance. These findings suggest that NSAIDs, especially aspirin, may moderate neuroinflammation or changes in blood flow to the brain triggered by inhaling pollution.
In addition to randomized clinical trials needed to establish the protective effects of NSAIDs against short term exposure to air pollution, future studies will be needed to investigate the specific effects of chemical components of air pollution on cognitive performance, exposure sources in the environment, and the duration of cognitive impairments due to short-term air pollution exposures.