Air pollution in China could damage cognitive performance

A recent study has found a significant correlation between air pollution and cognitive performance in China.

WebMD Beijing Air Pollution

Air pollution in Beijing’s Tuanjiehu Park.

Air pollution in China

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution causes an estimated seven (7) million premature deaths per year worldwide. Air pollution is even more hazardous in China, particularly in northern China where the quantity of harmful particulates is up to 55% higher than in southern China, and where an international study found that severe pollution during the 1990s cut five and a half years from the average life expectancy.

The thick clouds of smog drowning northern cities like Beijing have long been linked to increased rates of stroke, heart disease and cancer. However now researchers from Peking University and Yale University have also found a strong link between air pollution and decreased cognitive performance.

Effects on cognitive performance

The study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and entitled “The impact of exposure to air pollution on cognitive performance,” administered math and verbal skills tests over four years to ~20,000 people in China, while also measuring the amounts of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates smaller than 10 μm in diameter (PM10) where participants lived.

The study found that air pollution had a negative impact on students’ cognitive performance, although the findings thus far prove only a correlation and not a causal relation. It is possible that pollutants could be directly affecting brain chemistry, while it is also possible that pollutants are having a psychological impact (e.g., increasing the risk of depression). Additionally, pollutants could increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

The study further found that the negative impact of air pollution on cognitive performance was worst in older, less-educated men, possibly because these participants often work outdoor manual jobs, and consequently have more exposure to pollutants.

The authors of the study believe that, “Cutting annual mean concentration of particulate matter smaller than 10 μm (PM10) in China to the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard (50 μg/m3) would move people from the median to the 63rd percentile (verbal test scores) and the 58th percentile (math test scores), respectively.”

2 Responses to “Air pollution in China could damage cognitive performance”

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