Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and The University of Queensland found that even brief exposure to pollution can have a negative effect on brain performance and ability to perform.
Dr Andrea La Nauze from UQ’s School of Economics said a data study indicated that air pollution impacted cognitive function in working-age adults.
To investigate the effects of air pollution on adults in the United States, we used data from Lumosity brain-training games.
The games we studied targeted seven cognitive abilities memory, verbal ability and attention, as well as flexibility, maths ability speed and problem-solving.
We observed that those who were exposed to moderately high levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) caused their scores to decrease by six points on a 100-point scale which is the score of the top one percent of cognitive performers.
If you’re less than 30 years old and are exposed to this level of pollution your cognitive function will decline by the same amount as you age by 15 years.”
Dr. Andrea La Nauze, UQ School of Economics
PM2.5 is a tiny particle 2.5 microns in size.
Inhaling PM2.5 can penetrate the lungs, enter the bloodstream, and cause serious health issues including respiratory problems and heart disease.
Dr. La Nauze stated that while PM2.5’s health effects are well-known, this study was the first to utilize brain training data for studying the potential impact on cognitive performance.
She explained that cognitive functions are skills that enable us to process, store, and use information. They’re crucial to tasks ranging in size from making a cup or tea to self-regulating.
“Economists are just starting to examine cognition. However, recent research suggests that changes in cognition could have an impact on productivity of workers.
“Our findings show that the negative effects of air pollution are largest for those under 50 – those who are who are in prime working age which indicates that daily performance at work is likely to be affected.”
The largest effects were found to be on memory. This means that the jobs that depend on memory function more are likely to be most affected.
Dr. La Nauze stated that the results of the study were applicable to Australia even being based on data from United States.
She stated that she believes that her research has real implications for average Australian working-age adults, especially as bushfires become more frequented and contribute to air pollution.
“The 2019-2020 bushfire disaster exposed millions of Australians the most polluted air anywhere in the world.
“Although Australia’s air is pretty healthy by international standards however, the average Australian is still exposed to more air pollution than the latest World Health Organisation recommendations.”
Dr. La Nauze stated that a combination of individual and policy measures could be employed to fight the negative consequences.
She said, “You can reduce your exposure by staying indoors, using air filter or moving to a cleaner suburb.”
“Fundamentally however, it boils down to government policy reduction of vehicle emissions, targeting sources of air pollution such as bushfires, and revising standards on air quality.
“Air quality standards in Australia and around the world must take into account cognitive effects and downstream productivity impacts.”
A. La Nauze and E.R. Severnini (2021) Air Pollution & Adult Cognition: Evidence From Brain Training. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper. doi.org/10.3386/w28785.
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