The Potential Link Between Pollution and Alzheimer’s Disease

As of 2016, there are an estimated 564,000 Canadians living with dementia, as 25,000 new cases are being diagnosed on a yearly basis. By 2031, it’s believed that this number will rise by 66 percent, affecting nearly one million Canadian citizens. Being such a complex condition, there is still a lot we do not understand.

Alzheimer’s disease cannot be cured and at this point in time, there’s no way to stop the progression of degenerative symptoms. It’s tough to create an effective solution when you do not fully understand the cause. Although hundreds of studies have been published, all which provide clues, it appears that there are a number of factors at play.

From genetics to our environment, the human brain is fascinatingly complex. Although genetics, smoking, and even diet have been studied, it appears that pollution may also influence the potential development of this disease. More specifically, the toxic by-product of traffic pollution.

Pollution Particles May Influence Alzheimer’s Disease

For those of you living around Toronto, you know traffic all too well. As rush hour begins, the 401 highway is jam packed, bumper to bumper. Although it may make you stressed and even miss out on family time, it appears that pollution from traffic could actually be harming your brain.

Researchers found tiny particles of magnetite, a by-product of traffic pollution within the brain tissue of participants after death. Studying 29 people from Mexico City and 8 individuals from Manchester, none of which had Alzheimer’s, they were able to measure magnetite levels. Some of the 8 individuals from the UK, however, did suffer from neurodegenerative diseases.

Magnetite is naturally created in small quantities in the human body, generally showcased as particles that are irregular and jagged in terms of their shape. In comparison, the particles that were found in the brain were smooth and spherical. It’s believed that magnetite may increase oxidative damage at the molecular level, impacting brain cells.

Since this oxidative damage appears to occur at the molecular level, especially in the presence of amyloid beta protein — a key protein linked to Alzheimer’s, it’s unclear what role these particles may play regarding the development of neurodegenerative conditions. So, where did this possible connection come from?

Where Did This Connection Come From?

Based on this study, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Medical Research Council, and the Alzheimer’s Society, researchers have raised concerns. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this study only shows that these particles were present in the people studied, nothing else.

At this point, there are a number of possibilities. These particles may be found in everyone’s brains, in the brains of people who live in heavily polluted areas, or may be more commonly found in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Overall, of the individuals studied, all of the brain samples contained abundant magnetite particles which are formed by combustion — airborne matter that is common in urban areas.

Highest among older individuals, researchers found two types of particles. As mentioned, they found a more naturally formed version which was jagged, as well as a smoother type that is consistent with pollution. They also varied in size, as the pollution particles were larger than the smaller, naturally occurring variety.

Researchers made this connection based on prior research, as spherical particles of magnetite have been found in the plaques and tangles of protein that was sourced from the brain tissue of Alzheimer’s patients. They also made the link between areas with higher air pollution and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, which has been documented in cities like Taiwan.

Regardless of their connection to Alzheimer’s, it’s well-known that air pollution is hazardous to human health, leading to potential lung and heart complications. Now, based on these findings, it appears that pollution may also enter the brain — probably through the olfactory nerve, which carries information about our sense of smell to the brain itself.

Of course, researchers cannot yet jump to any conclusions and follow-up studies will need to be conducted. With that being said, if you can manage it, try to limit your exposure to pollution as much as possible. Since this is not always a possibility, reduce your risk by focusing on other potential risk factors, including smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, inactivity, poor diet, and high blood pressure.

It’s imperative that you take care of your health today so that you can maintain a higher quality of life in the future. If you have any Alzheimer’s related questions or would like to find out more, please visit the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

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