Is Alzheimer’s ‘in the air’?

Alzheimer’s and dementia rates are rising at an alarming pace. And they’re only expected to grow more and more in the years to come….

In fact, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. is expected to triple by 2050 — going from a whopping 5.2 million to an even more whopping 13.8 million.

Those numbers are mind-boggling. So mind-boggling, that they leave you to wonder… why are so many people developing this devastating brain disease? Is there something in the air?

The answer is yes. There absolutely is… Alzheimer’s-causing air pollutants.

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Air pollutants poison your brain

Air pollutants are known factors behind health problems like heart and lung disease. But they could play a role in the Alzheimer’s epidemic too…

A study from researchers at the University of Southern California found that older women who live in areas where particulate matter air pollution is higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard are 81 percent more likely to develop cognitive decline and 92 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia. Researchers also found that particulate matter air pollution is even more likely to trigger Alzheimer’s in women who carry the APOE e4 gene (the gene that triples your Alzheimer’s risk).

In case you’re wondering, particulate matter air pollution consists of particles like dust, dirt, soot and smoke, as well as smaller particles that are invisible to the naked eye. These particles come from a variety of sources like construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks and fires. Power plants, industrial factories and automobiles are major sources of particulate matter too. And these sources help fill the air we breathe with heavy metal compounds.

As you’d expect, this dangerous form of air pollution is highest in urban areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. So if you live in a major metropolitan area, you may be putting yourself at a much higher risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia…

Based on their study, USC researchers suspect that particulate matter air pollution could be responsible for as many as 21 percent of dementia cases in the U.S.

That’s because these particles enter your brain through your nose and trigger an inflammatory response. Brain inflammation plays a big role in Alzheimer’s, so one more inflammation-causing agent could be the tipping point that sends your cognitive health into a downward spiral.

Alzheimer’s and air pollution: What’s the solution?

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The problem with environmental health risks like air pollution is that you don’t feel like you have much control over your exposure. But, the truth is, you have more control than you think. You can take a bite out of your air pollution exposure by:

  • Checking your local air quality index and spending minimal time outdoors when your air quality is bad.
  • Avoiding walking or sitting in heavy traffic whenever possible.
  • Setting your car’s fan to “recirculate” when you’re stuck in traffic, so it doesn’t fill your car with auto exhaust.
  • Doing what you can to improve your indoor air quality, like buying air purifying plants, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter or investing in an indoor air purifier.
  • Chelation therapy.

Besides taking these precautionary measures to avoid pollution, you can also reduce your Alzheimer’s risk in other ways by:

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  1. 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” — The Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  2. Air pollution may lead to dementia in older women.” — MedicalXpress. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  3. Cacciottolo, et al. “Particulate air pollutants, APOE alleles and their contributions to cognitive impairment in older women and to amyloidogenesis in experimental models.” — Translational Psychiatry, 2017.
  4. Air Quality: Particulate Matter.” — Illinois Partners for Clean Air. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  5. Particulate Matter (PM) Basics. — The United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  6. Air Pollution: 6 Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Health. — U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and