Long-term exposure to environmental pollution is harmful for mental health in older adults

June 15 2023 Jing Wu defended her thesis entitled “Ambient Air Pollution and Transportation Noise: How They Affect Mental Health in Older Adults”. Jing, could you tell us a little bit more about it?

With the continuous acceleration of urbanization, people are inevitably exposed to high levels of environmental pollution, especially air and noise pollution. However, the impact of long-term exposure to environmental pollution on mental health among older adults remains unclear. My thesis examines long-term exposure to air pollution in relation to cognitive function and depression among older adults, as well as the effects of transportation noise on cognitive decline and impairment. 

What are the most important results?

Our findings suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution was a risk factor for the full cognitive spectrum, including faster cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, and the progression from impaired cognitive function to dementia in older adults. Specifically, the oldest-old group with cerebrovascular diseases was the most vulnerable one, even at a low level of air pollution exposure. Second, long-term exposure to air pollution may also be a risk factor for depression in late life. However, active social engagement could counteract the hazardous effect of air pollution on developing depression. Third, transportation noise from aircraft and railways was also found to increase the risk of cognitive outcomes. No evidence supported the relationship between road traffic noise and cognitive outcomes. An increase in the number of transportation noise sources led to a higher risk of cognitive impairment.

How can this new knowledge contribute to the improvement of people’s health?

A better understanding of modifiable environmental risk factors for mental disorders can help public health authorities reduce the disease burden by generating policies and regulations to control the levels of environmental pollution in residential areas for older adults. Moreover, promoting beneficial lifestyles or mitigating cardiovascular burdens on mental health could help individuals counteract the risk of environmental pollution on mental health among older adults. 

Will you continue conducting research in the future?

I am deeply passionate about engaging in medical research. My ongoing commitment lies in making valuable contributions to the field of neuroepidemiology, driven by the overarching objective of enhancing human well-being.

Link to the thesis: Ambient air pollution and transportation noise : how they affect mental health in older adults (ki.se)

Text by Charlotte Brandt