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Dementia, Cognitive Decline Associated With Air Pollution

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio
The Fresno skyline as seen through a thick cloud of pollution from the San Joaquin River

It was only a few weeks ago that wildfires drove particle pollution to dangerously high levels in many parts of the San Joaquin Valley and mountain areas, and it could happen again before wildfire season is over. Particulate matter, also known as PM, is a major health risk: It’s known to cause asthma attacks and other respiratory flare-ups in the short term, and exposure over the long term has been associated with reduced immune function and cardiovascular problems.

Now, a growing body of research is linking PM and other air pollutants to problems with another part of the body: The brain. Two recent wide-reaching reports associate the pollutant with a decline in cognitive function: One a peer-reviewed study in the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the other a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

To explain these studies we spoke with Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonary physician and environmental health researcher with the University of California and the physician member of the California Air Resources Board. He was not involved in either of these research projects but does co-lead a major study of air pollution and health here in Fresno. Listen to the interview above for insight on how reliable the studies are, what they mean for air pollution research and what they reveal about the connection between air quality and human health.

This post has been edited to include links to the reports mentioned in the interview.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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