Pollution Linked to Fall in Intelligence, China Study Finds

Pearl Mccarthy
August 30, 2018

Previous studies found air pollution had a negative impact on students' cognitive abilities.

The research, published in The Guardian, was carried out in China but could have ramifications worldwide, as figures suggest 95% of the world's population is breathing unsafe air.

The study stressed that it had accounted for a gradual decline in cognition as people reach old age, and also ruled out the possibility that those taking the tests were more impatient or uncooperative when pollution was at high levels.

"Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge", said Xi Chen of the Yale School of Public Health and a member of the research team.

Toxic air can cause everyone's level of education to reduce by one year - and could extend to a few years' worth of education for those aged over 64.

Cognitive decline is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia in the elderly, the former of which amounted to $226 billion of health services and 18 billion labor hours of unpaid caregiving in 2015, according to the study.

Nearly all the cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 1,00,000 residents fail to meet World Health Organization air quality guidelines, they said.

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While some countries, including China, are taking measures to address air pollution, this will also potentially effect economic growth.

Dr Xin Zhang of Beijing Normal University and co-authors compared test scores from a study run on a representative sample of Chinese families with air pollution in their home city on the day of the test and over longer periods.

Air pollution causes seven million premature deaths a year but the harm to people's mental abilities is less well known.

The findings showed the more a person was exposed to air pollution, the lower their verbal and math test scores were.

"Most existing research on air pollution focuses on its health effects", study author Xiaobo Zhang told Euronews. "In many countries in South Asia, especially in India, there is a really big loss - more than 1.5 to 1.75 years - when we look at life expectancy". Measurements of carbon monoxide, ozone and larger particulate matter were not considered. "So, even if the magnitude of impact might vary for the countries, there could be a similar impact on health", the Times of India reported.

"For older persons (in our study those age 55-65 or 65+) the effects can be very hard to mitigate given the long term cumulative exposure", Mr Xi says.

He says exposure to pollution could make elderly people less effective in making major financial and medical decisions.

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