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Does Air Quality Affect Mental Health?

Air pollution is a largely invisible phenomenon, but it can have serious and unhealthy effects on the body as well as the mind. While it’s been known since the 1970s that smog and polluted air can affect breathing and the heart, further research has shown that air pollution has an effect on our brains as well.

University of Michigan Study: Air Quality, Cognitive Skills and Depression

A study by the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment found that high levels of pollution in the air could cause damage to children’s cognitive abilities, decrease their academic performance, increase the risk of declining cognitive abilities in adults and is possibly linked to depression.

Swedish Research Study: Air Quality and Mental Illness

In 2016, a study in Sweden looked at the links between air pollution exposure and child and adolescent mental health. The study found children and adolescents who lived in areas with higher levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is a dangerous air pollutant, had a higher likelihood of taking prescription medications associated with long-term mental illnesses.

The study called for a reduction in air pollution, which could possibly then reduce the number of psychiatric disorders observed in children and adolescents.

Boston University’s School of Public Health Research Study: Air Quality and IQ Levels

Another study, conducted by Boston University’s School of Public Health, reported that children in Boston who were exposed to greater levels of black carbon scored worse on IQ tests.

Rush Medical College Research Study: Air Quality and Depression

A Rush Medical College study exposed mice to air pollution. The study reported that more exposure led to slower completion times of maze tests as well as more mistakes. It also found the same mice showed signs of depression by giving up on tasks faster and avoiding previously pleasurable activities.

Air Pollution and Brain Changes

While these studies cannot definitively link air pollution to brain changes and declines in thinking skills and academic performance, it is known that cleaner air makes for a healthier environment. One of the reasons it’s difficult to establish a scientific relationship is because many studies look at the relationship of psychological problems and one specific pollutant, so their findings of correlations fluctuate.

Studies have shown the fine particles in air pollution can cause changes to nerve cells in the brain. Fine particles found in smoke, car exhaust and pollen can interact directly with the brain.

These mental and cognitive effects of air pollution are continually being studied and are receiving more recognition and attention in the mental health community. More research needs to be done to understand the relationship between air pollution and changes in the brain, but it is clear that living in a clean-air environment is healthier for children and adults—both physically and mentally.