It sounds like something out of a Science Fiction dystopia, but research has found that intelligence can be affected by exposure to air pollution
By now it should be clear that air pollution is one of the most problematic issues our health must deal with. We know that it poses a danger to pregnant women and we know that it affects children’s mental development. Indoor air pollution itself has also been linked to bad sleep, and now we have another problem to deal with: a gradual slowness of our minds.
This is not fear mongering, but the conclusions arrived at by Dr. Xi Chen and his team at Yale School of Public Health. In a nutshell: air pollution has been found to correlate with poor results in activities demanding intelligence and concentration, specifically verbal and mathematical. And even though this affects everyone, it was found that people aged over 64 were more prone to receive the biggest blow in their cognition after exposure to air pollution.
That the elderly are affected by toxic air filled with contaminants such as Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and PM 2,5 particles is not a surprise. What is shocking is to know that their minds can be dulled by the air that surrounds them, something to be really worried about. Dr. Chen has pointed out that it is around that age bracket when people make the most important financial decisions, so it is a big problem for our elderly to exposed to polluted air, both outdoors and indoors.
Young people are affected as well, even though perhaps in not such drastic ways. The study found that exposure to contaminated air has short-term effects on general intelligence, which may play a role against the academic performance of students during highly contaminated days that may coincide with important events, such as exams or presentations in class. College is already hard enough, with all the assignments and responsibilities that it demands, the stress and the few hours of sleep that come with all of it. The last thing our students need is for air pollution to cloud their minds.
Even though the experiment was conducted in China, the results can be easily extrapolated to the rest of the world. It is not just words, but facts: 95% of the world’s population breathes contaminated air, as stated by a report authored by the Health Effects Institute, so Dr. Chen’s results are just as relevant to Western countries.
To understand this, the scientists carried out a four-year investigation (2010-2014) using a sample of 20.000 people spread across the country. They analysed arithmetic and language test scores and compared them with environmental records showing levels of NO2 and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) in the air. Not surprisingly, they discovered that longer exposure to air contaminated with these pollutants was linked to a noticeable damage to intelligence. Verbal abilities experience a bigger plummet over mathematics, and this was more evident among those who already had poor education. In general terms, men were more affected than women and the elderly were the ones who suffered the worst.
Why does this happen? Air pollution may be associated with neurodegeneration, which is a progressive atrophy of the human neurons usually caused by genetic inheritance, alcoholism, or strokes, but also by toxins and pollutants introduced to the body. Dr. Chen estimates that the cumulative effects that air pollution has on cognition may be equivalent to a one-year regression in our education. That by itself is already bad enough, but it gets worse: it is likely to become steeper the more polluted the world becomes, as Dr. Chen believes that 1mg rise in air pollution equals to one month of regression. It is a grim landscape that would make a thoughtful science fiction movie, but it is not a Hollywood script. It is real life, and we must deal with it now.
Dr. Chen has pointed out that air pollution was found to be the cause behind loss of intelligence, and not a correlating factor. This is similar to something we have talked before in this magazine: poor air quality has been linked directly to poor performance in the office. But whereas before we talked about problems related to workspace performance, Dr. Chen’s research looks at the general effects of pollution on the population. Is there something to do about it?
Yes, because the problem with air pollution is solvable. As individuals, there are things we can do to reduce it, like keeping an eye on our carbon footprint and reducing emissions of outdoors and indoors contaminants. But at a collective level there is still so much to do. Both government and industry need to do their part in the cleanup process, and Dr. Chen is convinced that the mayor shift will be observed the day governments begin to produce functional solutions. These, however, will show results in the long-term.
It is easy to wait, but it is more complicated not to do something in the meantime. As mentioned before, out of a pocket of healthy volunteers, it was the elderly in Dr. Chen’s study who suffered the most observable negative effects in their ability to reason. And, of course, pollution is not an outside problem. The spaces we conduct our lives into are also heavily polluted, and they are a health hazard to our well-being. Sure, the study at Yale was done considering outdoors air pollution, but it is indoors where we spend 90% of our time, so we might as well start doing something to clean our living and working spaces first if we want to do something about a decline in our intelligence.
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