New Study: Living Near This Creates “Particularly Strong” Increase in Alzheimer’s Risk

Updated: Mar. 08, 2024

It's not a knock on New York—that's just one of many areas hosting a nuisance that scientists report may threaten a healthy brain.

Science continues to make new discoveries about contributors to Alzheimer’s disease, from genes to certain neurofibers in the brain to even possibly a nosy habit.

One theme dementia researchers have unveiled is that while some factors, such as genetic predisposition, cannot be changed, others can. A March 2024 study suggests the disease can be related to one’s living environment, presenting a potentially modifiable risk factor.

Led by a team of doctors at Emory University, the study suggests that a person’s choice of living and working arrangements may potentially lead to Alzheimer’s-like changes in the brain and the accumulation of dementia-related plaques.

Slated for publication in the March 2024 issue of the journal Neurology, the research examined 224 cadaver brains of individuals who resided in the Atlanta area between 2002 and 2019. All participants passed away before 2020 at an average age of 76 and donated their brains for scientific study. The researchers analyzed the participants’ residential history and measured the levels of traffic pollution in terms of average fine particulate matter in the areas they lived one, three, and five years before their deaths.

The findings revealed that exposure to pollution, both in the short-term and long-term, induced Alzheimer’s-like changes in the brain tissue among all participants. Interestingly, individuals with a particular gene strongly associated with the development of Alzheimer’s, exhibited a somewhat mitigated response to the pollution. The researchers suspect that this is because the gene has a stronger effect on those predisposed to Alzheimer’s, potentially masking the effect of the pollution, rather than indicating that the pollution did not contribute.

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Overall, the scientists report that exposure to pollution and the brain changes they observed raised concerns: “This suggests that environmental factors such as air pollution could be contributing factors to Alzheimer’s disease, especially in patients for whom the disease cannot be explained by genetics,” said Anke Huels, PhD, MSc, the study’s lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Emory University, as reported by the Washington Post.

While more studies among more diverse populations are needed, say researchers the potential for traffic pollution to lead to these brain changes underscores the importance of limiting exposure, particularly in older age when people are more vulnerable to dementia.