Late-life exposure to ambient air pollution is a modifiable risk factor for dementia, but epidemiological studies have shown inconsistent evidence for cognitive decline. Air quality (AQ) improvement has been associated with improved cardiopulmonary health and decreased mortality, but to the best of our knowledge, no studies have examined the association with cognitive function. We examined whether AQ improvement was associated with slower rate of cognitive decline in older women aged 74 to 92 years.
Methods and findings
We studied a cohort of 2,232 women residing in the 48 contiguous US states that were recruited from more than 40 study sites located in 24 states and Washington, DC from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) Memory Study (WHIMS)-Epidemiology of Cognitive Health Outcomes (WHIMS-ECHO) study. They were predominantly non-Hispanic White women and were dementia free at baseline in 2008 to 2012. Measures of annual (2008 to 2018) cognitive function included the modified Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (TICSm) and the telephone-based California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT). We used regionalized universal kriging models to estimate annual concentrations (1996 to 2012) of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) at residential locations. Estimates were aggregated to the 3-year average immediately preceding (recent exposure) and 10 years prior to (remote exposure) WHIMS-ECHO enrollment.
Individual-level improved AQ was calculated as the reduction from remote to recent exposures. Linear mixed effect models were used to examine the associations between improved AQ and the rates of cognitive declines in TICSm and CVLT trajectories, adjusting for sociodemographic (age; geographic region; race/ethnicity; education; income; and employment), lifestyle (physical activity; smoking; and alcohol), and clinical
characteristics (prior hormone use; hormone therapy assignment; depression; cardiovascular disease (CVD); hypercholesterolemia; hypertension; diabetes; and body mass index [BMI]). For both PM2.5 and NO2, AQ improved significantly over the 10 years before WHIMS-ECHO enrollment. During a median of 6.2 (interquartile range [IQR] = 5.0) years of follow-up, declines in both general cognitive status (β = −0.42/year, 95% CI: −0.44, −0.40) and episodic memory (β = −0.59/year, 95% CI: −0.64, −0.54) were observed. Greater AQ improvement was associated with slower decline in TICSm (βPM2.5improvement = 0.026 per year for improved PM2.5 by each IQR = 1.79 μg/m3 reduction, 95% CI: 0.001, 0.05; βNO2improvement = 0.034 per year for improved NO2 by each IQR = 3.92 parts per billion [ppb] reduction, 95% CI: 0.01, 0.06) and CVLT (βPM2.5 improvement = 0.070 per year for improved PM2.5 by each IQR = 1.79 μg/m3 reduction, 95% CI: 0.02, 0.12; βNO2improvement = 0.060 per year for improved NO2 by each IQR = 3.97 ppb reduction, 95% CI: 0.005, 0.12) after adjusting for covariates. The respective associations with TICSm and CVLT were equivalent to the slower decline rate found with 0.9 to 1.2 and1.4 to 1.6 years of younger age and did not significantly differ by age, region, education, Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) e4 genotypes, or cardiovascular risk factors. The main limitations of this study include measurement error in exposure estimates, potential unmeasured confounding, and limited generalizability.
In this study, we found that greater improvement in long-term AQ in late life was associated with slower cognitive declines in older women. This novel observation strengthens the epidemiologic evidence of an association between air pollution and cognitive aging.
Why was this study done?
Although studies have shown that late-life exposure to outdoor air pollution is a modifiable risk factor for dementia, the epidemiological evidence for cognitive decline has been inconsistent.
Epidemiological studies have demonstrated that improved air quality (AQ) may decrease mortality and improve respiratory health, strengthening the evidence of a relationship between ambient air pollution and these health outcomes.
To our knowledge, no previous studies have examined the potential benefit of slowing cognitive aging by AQ improvement.
What did the researchers do and find?
Using a US cohort of 2,232 older women followed up to 20 years, we explored whether women living in locations with greater AQ improvement had slower decline in their cognitive function.
AQ improvement was defined as the difference in air pollution levels over 2 time points that were 10 years apart.
Living in locations with greater AQ improvement was associated with slower cognitive declines in older women, equivalent to women who were 0.9 to 1.6 years younger.
The associations were similar across age groups, geographic region, education, Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) e4 genotypes, and cardiovascular risk factors.
What do these findings mean?
These findings strengthen the contribution of outdoor air pollution on cognitive aging.
These results highlight the potential benefits of reducing outdoor air pollution levels.
Key study limitations include measurement error in exposure estimates, potential unmeasured confounders, and limited generalizability.