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Living in Smoggy Areas May Reduce Seniors' Brainpower

FRIDAY, Nov. 16 (HealthDay News) -- High levels of air pollution may reduce older adults' mental abilities, according to a new study.

Researchers looked at more than 14,000 men and women, aged 50 and older, who took part in the 2004 U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Information about their mental skills was compared to national Environmental Protection Agency data on 2004 annual average levels of fine particulate air pollution.

People who lived in areas with high levels of fine particulate matter scored worse on tests of mental skills such as word recall, knowledge, language and orientation. The association between high levels of particulate matter and reduced mental ability remained even after the researchers accounted for factors such as age, race, ethnicity, education, smoking, and lung and heart conditions.

Levels of fine particulate air matter ranged from 4.1 to 20.7 micrograms per cubic meter. Every 10-point increase was associated with a 0.36-point drop in mental ability test scores. This is roughly equal to the effect of aging three years, the researchers said.

The findings were scheduled for presentation Friday at a meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in San Francisco.

This is the first national study to show how exposure to air pollution can affect older adults' mental abilities, according to a society new release. The findings suggest that fine particulate air matter might be an important environmental risk factor for brain functioning.

"As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air," study co-author Jennifer Ailshire, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Biodemography and Population Health at the U.S. National Institute on Aging, said in the news release.

"Air pollution has been linked to increased cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even premature death, in older populations," she noted. "There is emerging evidence that exposure to particulate air pollution may have adverse effects on brain health and functioning as well."

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The study found an association between air pollution and mental functioning; it did not prove cause-and-effect.

More information

The Natural Resources Defense Council has more about air pollution.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Gerontological Society of America, news release, Nov. 16, 2012

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