The precise mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease continue to baffle scientists, but a plethora of recent studies have been shedding some light on this mysterious ailment that kills more people each year than prostate cancer and breast cancer combined. Now, a new study has found that the cause of Alzheimer’s disease is “hiding in plain sight,” and the culprit could well be your car.
Researchers in the U.S. and Mexico discovered that inhaling microscopic particles from exhaust fumes caused damage in the brains of children who were as young as three years old. Moreover, the nanoparticles had led to obvious damage in key parts of children’s brains by the time they turned 14.
They reached their conclusions after looking at the brains of 13 children and 21 young adults in Mexico City who died in accidents but were healthy otherwise. The scientists believe this damage could help explain adolescent behavioral problems like violence and could be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
A 14-year-old girl from Mexico City had extremely high levels of PM2.5 in her frontal lobe, the part of the brain that is responsible for important functions like planning, motivation, short-term memory and attention. Other teens and young adults in their 20s showed similar damage. However, children from areas without pollution did not show signs of such damage.
The PM2.5 particles are especially problematic in diesel car emissions. The University of Montana’s Dr. Lilian Calderon-Garciduenas said that people breathe in vehicle emissions through their noses, and they immediately enter the brain and cross the blood-brain barrier. The nanoparticles can cross all barriers and have properties that allow them to create oxidative damage. She considers this a “very serious public health issue, with grave social and economic consequences.”
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Growing evidence of link between air pollution and dementia
A University of Toronto study that was published earlier this year discovered that those who live close to main roads and are exposed to traffic fumes had as much as a 12 percent higher chance of developing dementia. They estimated that one out of every nine cases of dementia in those who live within 50 meters of major roads could have been caused by traffic exposure.
These findings also back up an earlier study of people who lived in industrial cities such as Mexico City and Manchester. On that occasion, researchers found magnetite nanoparticles in the frontal cortex of people’s brains who had died in fatal accidents, and they discovered it got there thanks to the air pollution in their local areas. Fine particulate matter has also been linked to problems like diabetes, inflammation, and even heart disease.
Once blamed solely on genetics, evidence has been emerging that lifestyle factors play a much bigger role in Alzheimer’s than previously believed, including obesity, smoking, a lack of exercise, and now air pollution.
Alzheimer’s cases on the rise
This could help explain the dramatic rise in Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. According to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, deaths from the illness rose nearly 66 percent between 1999 and 2014. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that 5.5 million Americans now have the disease, which can progress at various rates depending on the individual.
It’s not just the patients who are affected; the illness can take a tremendous toll on caregivers both financially and emotionally. It is estimated that for each person who has dementia, three unpaid caregivers are also affected.
One thing is for certain: city life can be hard on the human body. Industrial pollution, a hectic and stressful lifestyle, and being so far removed from nature all have an adverse impact on people’s health.