Research suggests that childhood air pollution damages general intelligence

childhood air pollution, research
© Jahangir Alam Onuchcha

Childhood air pollution has been understood as partially responsible for respiratory health – now, researchers are investigating at how exposure can damage cognitive ability later on in life

Pollution was legally ruled a factor in the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a young schoolgirl with severe asthma in London. The coroner said: “The whole of Ella’s life was lived in close proximity to highly polluting roads. I have no difficulty in concluding that her personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide and PM was very high.”

With this impact on respiratory health brought sharply into focus with the emergence of a virus that deteriorates that very thing, other elements of air pollution are coming to light.

Interestingly, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have turned their focus to how childhood air pollution impacts general intelligence throughout a lifetime.

An exposure to air pollution could be seen 60 years later

The research team found that childhood air pollution – even at the very beginning of life – could create a negative effect on people’s cognitive skills up to 60 years later.

Over 500 individuals aged 70 years were asked to re-take a test they all completed at the age of 11 years. The participants then repeated the same test at the ages of 76 and 79 years. A record of where each person had lived throughout their life was used to estimate the level of air pollution they had experienced as a child.

The team used statistical models to analyse the relationship between a person’s exposure to air pollution and their thinking skills in later life.

‘This is the first step’

Dr Tom Russ, Director of the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, commented: “For the first time we have shown the effect that exposure to air pollution very early in life could have on the brain many decades later.

“This is the first step towards understanding the harmful effects of air pollution on the brain and could help reduce the risk of dementia for future generations.”

The team also considered factors such as socio-economic status and smoking. Findings showed exposure to air pollution in childhood had a small but detectable association with worse cognitive change between the ages of 11 and 70 years. This study shows it is possible to estimate historical air pollution and explore how this relates to cognitive ability throughout life, which opens the door to a future of research possibilities.

There is a significant lack of data on air pollution before the 1990s, meaning that a method of historically extracting how polluted a location was could make all the difference for understanding the contemporary human mind.

Read the full study here.


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