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It only takes a few weeks of air pollution to reduce cognitive performance

Breathing polluted air for just a few weeks may be enough to reduce cognitive performance, according to a new study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Air pollution comes from several sources, including cigarettes, charcoal grills, gasoline cars and natural events like forest fires. There is some good news, however, as the same study found that common NSAID pain relievers can help reduce the impact.

Many places have regulations in place to reduce emissions and deal with pollution. However, the new study points out that there are many potential sources of short-term exposure to air pollution that we can find at work and in daily life, such as standing in traffic. Such exposure can have a negative impact on cognitive performance.

The results were based on data from the Normative Study on Aging; referred to 954 participants described as older white men from the Boston area. The researchers analyzed exposure to fine PM2.5 particles, black carbon and cognitive performance using a few different assessments.


The team linked declines in cognitive performance scores with PM2.5 “high-medium” exposure to air pollution, similarly finding that participants who took NSAIDs experienced less negative effects from exposure to pollution. Researchers note that this does not mean that there is a direct link between cognitive performance and the intake of these painkillers, however.

Instead, the study suggests that aspirin and other NSAIDs help reduce the impact of brain changes resulting from breathing air pollution, while reducing the resulting negative effects. This study, which focused specifically on short-term exposure, joins a larger body of research on the long-term cognitive ramifications of exposure to air pollution, including dementia and less brain volume.

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