The healthcare industry can now add dementia to a running list of troublesome health issues linked to poor air quality. Researchers at the University of Southern California have recently published a study that suggests a positive correlation between fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure and increased brain aging in older women. The study looks at data collected from women, female mice, and laboratory brain tissue for over a decade to demonstrate how particulates cause damage to the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory storage.

Exposure to high concentrations of particle pollution has long been associated to increased risks of heart attacks, asthma, and lung cancer amongst other illnesses. The new study on dementia is the latest of a series of findings bringing to light the alarming effects of air pollution on brain health.

Accurate and affordable air quality monitoring is key to identifying communities most at risk for dementia.

Further research through better data is still needed to fully understand the extent to which poor air quality influences human health. PM2.5 released from motor vehicle and industrial fossil fuel burning present the greatest health risk as the fine particles can directly enter the body into the brain. This creates a demand for reliable air quality monitoring networks across urban cities, in particular highly polluted industrial neighborhoods. In addition, low-income communities of color are consistently shown to live in high pollution areas along urban highways and crowded industrial areas. As a result, the most vulnerable communities often times have the least access to air quality information and proper healthcare.

Accurate and affordable air quality monitoring is key to identifying communities most at risk for dementia. By leveraging better real-time air quality data, scientists will be able to work with policymakers and healthcare professionals to implement preventative measures and identify early signs of dementia in high-risk individuals. Bringing down the cost of sensors will not only improve accessibility, but also lower healthcare costs in the long run. Annual costs associated with treating dementia range from 157 billion to 215 billion dollars in the United States alone.

As the global population continues to increase, the imminent need to accommodate a growing senior population will lead to detrimental challenges unless we are able to make informed decisions around urban planning, healthcare, and public policy. Access to better data is the first step to improving quality of life for communities across all social strata.