This week past, London snatched the pollution baton from Beijing, earning a new record for the worst pollution in modern times. Fresh air is increasingly recognized as not just a nice-to-have, but a must-have for productivity and health.
Pollution, fine particles, and your brain
The bulk of new scientific evidence is pointing toward fine particle pollution contributing directly to dementia and Alzheimer's. This research kicked off in force when Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas, a neuroscientist, got suspicious about why old dogs in dirty areas of Mexico City seemed to forget their owners. That was 2000. Since then, her ongoing research and those of dozens of colleagues have led to conclusions that urban pollution, particularly the kind you live with in dense areas like New York City, New Delhi, London, and Mexico City, is a critical health concern.
Now, at least 17 studies from across the world show a strong correlation between poor air quality and dementia. In fact, one Boston University study of 19,000 people concluded that for every additional 10 micrograms per cubic meter of bad air, your brain ages about two years. What seems to be happening, based on mouse studies, is that when you breathe dirty air, your brain inflames in reaction. That ultimately creates the underlying structure that leads to dementia or Alzheimers.
Getting the fresh air you need
Fortunately, air quality is something you can monitor and to some extent, control. Check in with the EPA, which runs an air quality site that reports on daily and hourly pollution levels in many parts of the country. It will give you the big picture in your zip code. Keep in mind pollution is like the tide--it ebbs and flows over the course of the day. High traffic times in cities tend to correlate with worse pollution.
1. Then, tune in more by paying attention to the air quality at home, in your office or at the gym--the places where you spend most of your time. These areas have the biggest impact on you. Some common culprits the kill indoor air quality are nearby traffic, burning (even sooty candles), fire places, BBQ, cooking grease, nearby coal-fired power plants, and the like. America's biggest coal burning plant is in striking distance of my air, actually, near Macon, Georgia. If the quality is not good, buying fine particle filters is a partial solution---so is looking for the root causes of the air pollution around you and trying to avoid them.
2. Try plants. You don't have to go the techno-route to quality indoor air. Scientist Kamal Meattle from Dehli has studied the science of growing plants indoors to create significantly cleaner indoor air. He explains his scientific system in the understated but strong TED talk below. In one 50,000-sq-foot office building, productivity increased 20% after plants rehabilitated the air.
3. Next time you move or relocate, take air quality into account in your new home base--not just the air there, but the air along the commutes you'll be making. According to the latest evidence, fresh air not only feels great, it adds years to your life and your mental acuity.