June 14, 2024

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Increasing Evidence Links Wildfire-Induced Air Pollution to Dementia

Increasing Evidence Links Wildfire-Induced Air Pollution to Dementia


Increasing Evidence Links Wildfire-Induced Air Pollution to Dementia.

It’s increasingly evident that air pollution from wildfires is associated with dementia, a growing body of evidence suggests.

While it’s well known that any form of air pollution can be detrimental to human health, causing around 6.5 million global deaths annually, a specific type of emission is increasingly being linked to late-life dementia, exacerbated by wildfires.


Increasing Evidence Links Wildfire-Induced Air Pollution to Dementia.



Particulate matter (PM) comprises chemical components such as sulfates, carbon, nitrates, or mineral dust.

While traditionally stemming from fossil fuel combustion through vehicles and industrial emissions, the sources of these harmful compounds are diversifying: wildfires and other forms of organic material combustion, such as agricultural practices.


A subset of inhalable particles, particularly concerning for human health, is fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

Measuring 30 times finer than a human hair, PM2.5 not only gets trapped in lung tissue but also enters the brain after being inhaled through the nose. It can also breach the blood-brain barrier.


Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed data from the National Health and Retirement Study and found a connection between dementia incidence in 27,857 adult Americans and PM2.5 emissions from agriculture and wildfires. Pollution estimates were based on participants’ locations, all aged 50 or above and dementia-free at the study’s outset.


Though approximately 15% of participants developed dementia, over the entire assessment period from 1998 to 2016, regions with higher PM2.5 concentrations exhibited a significantly greater decline in cognitive abilities.


Mounting evidence points to a significant link between trace toxins and dementia.


Sara Adar, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, stated, “Given the increasing frequency of wildfire smoke in our communities, these findings are very timely. They suggest that, in addition to more immediate impacts of wildfire smoke that are more apparent, such as irritation to our throats and eyes and breathing difficulties, high-smoke events may also have harmful effects on our brains.”


While wildfires are not new, their frequency, severity, and duration are on the rise.

With the planet warming, wildfire seasons are starting earlier, ending later, and the prevalence of extreme weather like heatwaves and droughts provide a perfect platform for wildfires to ignite.


Adar commented, “While individual wildfires may be short-lived, events like these are becoming more frequent in our communities due to rising temperatures, dry climates, and extended fire seasons. As we’ve seen, wildfire smoke can also travel great distances.”


Unfortunately, PM2.5 has many sources, but researchers are discovering the stealthy impact of wildfire emissions on health.

In the US, wildfire-generated fine particle exposure accounts for up to 25% of annual PM2.5 exposure, but in certain Western US regions, this proportion rises to around 50%.


Adar mentioned, “In our study, we found that all air-dispersed particles increased dementia risk, but particles from agricultural environments and wildfires seem to be especially toxic to the brain. Our results suggest that even in a relatively clean country like the United States, reducing levels of particulate air pollution could lower the number of people who develop dementia in later life.”


Previous research focused on the total amount of PM2.5 in the atmosphere, but researchers believe that pinpointing higher toxicity sources could aid in crafting more effective long-term and short-term strategies.


“Given that dementia takes a long time to develop, the main aim of this study was to provide evidence for policymakers to reduce exposure to these emissions,” noted co-author Bo-Ya Zhang. “This work suggests that particulate air pollution from agriculture and wildfires may have greater neurotoxic effects compared to other sources. However, more research is needed to confirm these impacts, especially for these pollution sources that have been less studied in previous research.”


This study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.





Increasing Evidence Links Wildfire-Induced Air Pollution to Dementia.

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