Wildfires ‘Robustly Associated’ With Higher Dementia Rates, Study Finds

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Wildfire in Alaska
Alaskagirl8821 / Shutterstock.com

Research has shown that air pollution is linked to increased dementia risk. Now, researchers have found two particular forms of pollution are linked to rising dementia rates over time.

Emissions from wildfires as well as agricultural activities are “robustly associated with greater rates of dementia,” according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.

Both wildfires and farming release harmful emissions at high concentrations and appear to be “especially toxic for the brain,” study coauthor Sara Adar said in a summary of the study findings.

The study cited one microscopic toxin in particular, known as “fine particulate matter” or “PM2.5.” It measures less than 2.5 microns — less than the width of a human hair — and can enter the brain through the nose.

Fine particulate matter also can impact the lungs and heart, according to the researchers.

For the study, the researchers looked at health records of around 30,000 adults that covered an 18-year period. The pollution estimates the researchers used were based on the home addresses of the study participants.

The researchers found that people who lived in areas with high levels of particulate matter air pollution — especially from wildfires and agriculture — had a higher risk of developing dementia.

Several other types of pollution — including emissions from traffic, coal combustion and open fires — also were associated with higher rates of dementia, although not to the same extent as wildfire and agricultural emissions.

Other potential factors — such as a study participant’s socioeconomic status or occupation — did not adequately explain the increase in dementia cases.

According to Adar, an environmental disease researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health:

“Our findings indicate that lowering levels of particulate matter air pollution, even in a relatively clean country like the United States, may reduce the number of people developing dementia in late life.”

However, Adar also noted that more research is needed to confirm the effects of such pollution on brain health.

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