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Does the Air We Breathe Affect Cognitive Health?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Jul 1st 2014

When I lived and worked in Chicago, I was the consummate commuter. Without a car, my choices of transportation were my feet, bus, or train (unfortunately, I didn't have a bicycle at the time). After spending several months in the city, I began to notice some unpleasant symptoms. When I caught a cold, it went straight to my chest and resulted in some of the worst coughing spells in my life. When I would run along the lakefront path, I'd come home to find that the sweat I produced had also spawned a strange rash down my back. I also began to have headaches.

air pollutionWhen I got married and moved to the suburbs, I continued to take the train into the city for work for a few more months. I noticed that some of my symptoms had subsided (when I went running on the trail by our house, I no longer produced a rash), but the coughing fits and headaches still plagued me, usually getting worse by Friday and clearing up by Monday. Then the cycle would start again.

Interestingly, when I left my job in the city and stopped commuting in by train, the coughing fits and headaches stopped too. Coincidence? I don't think so.

My husband and I are convinced that the air pollution in the city was the culprit behind my strange symptoms. As I gradually reduced my time there and cut back on riding trains whose diesel engines produced oodles of junk that filled the air, I gradually got better.

We know that air pollution is bad for us, especially the kind that contains fine particulate matter - a category of traffic-related particles that can cause damage to multiple organs when inhaled. Now there's a study showing that one of those organs affected might be the brain.

In the journal The Gerontologist, researchers reported that older adults living in areas with high concentrations of fine particulate matter committed 1.5 times more errors on cognitive tests than did older adults living in areas with lower levels of fine particulate matter.

The study did a nice job of controlling for other factors that may have explained the difference in scores. The authors suggest that their results add to a growing body of research showing that air pollution negatively affects cognitive health, which can include thinking, memory, problem-solving, judgment, and related skills.

Thinking back to my time in the city (which was wonderful in many other ways - just not in the realm of environmental health), I'm very grateful to not be inhaling the pollution-riddled air anymore. If older people are susceptible to cognitive decline via fine particulate matter, we all might be. Please beware, and get as much fresh air (in non-metropolitan areas) as you can.


Ailshire, J. A., & Clarke, P. (2014). Fine particulate matter air pollution and cognitive function among U.S. older adults. The Gerontologist: Series B, Advance Access. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu064


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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