Clean Air = Clear Thinking (Or How Pollution Undermines Cognitive Health)

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

If your mind feels a little hazy when you get home from work each night, it might not only be due to a stressful day at the office.

It might be the air you’re breathing on your daily commute.


Researchers at Rush University Medical Center recently studied the cognitive effects of air pollution (the word “cognitive” refers to brain processes such as thinking, reasoning, and remembering). They found that exposure to air pollution in urban areas over time can result in higher rates of mental decline, especially among older women.

What kind of air pollution is most dangerous? The researchers examined both “fine particulate matter” and “coarse particulate matter.” The particles in fine matter are smaller and found in motor vehicle exhaust and the exhaust from public transportation, such as trains and buses. The particles in coarse matter are larger and found in dust from construction and manufacturing.

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Overall, fine particulate matter was more dangerous. Why? Jennifer Weuve, the principal researcher, explained that smaller particles are better able to infiltrate our bodies. This makes sense if we think about breathing in pollution, which gets into our lungs and then into our blood system.

But here’s what really frightened me. Dr. Weuve said that in animal studies, it’s been shown that when fine particulate matter was inhaled, it attached to nerve endings in the nasal cavities and then traveled to the brain. Ugh!

The researchers speculate that in humans, pollution in the brain could result in gradual tissue death that affects our mental processes.

I spent close to three years commuting to and from work on public transportation. When the commute was short and I only rode on buses for 30 minutes a day, I didn’t notice any ill effects. But when I married and moved to the suburbs, my commute became much longer. I rode trains for 2 hours a day in addition to buses for 30 minutes daily. This is when I started to feel the cumulative effects of air pollution.

In a matter of weeks, I developed a cough. I was also extremely fatigued and my stress level was spiking. It wasn’t long before my husband and I decided it was time for me to make a career change.

When I left that job and began working from home as a freelance writer, my health improved dramatically. I always thought I was making a change for my physical health, but now I wonder if I was doing something good for my cognitive health too.

In my first blog, I talked about the many dimensions of wellness and how they’re related. I think this research is a perfect example of how environmental wellness is related to intellectual wellness. In other words, our environment – its cleanliness, safety, and comfort – clearly affects our minds, including the clarity of our thoughts and our ability to manage a busy life.

Are you regularly exposed to the exhaust of cars, buses, and trains? If so, I encourage you to take measures to reduce your exposure as much as possible. This may entail working from home one or two days a week or commuting before or after rush hour periods to avoid the highest pollution levels.

Also, be sure to get plenty of fresh air on your days off – this helped me tremendously when I was commuting. Enjoying clean outdoor air not only cleared my lungs and eased my cough – it created a sense of peace and well-being that carried me into the next workweek.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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