Air pollution may be linked with an increased risk of developing dementia, research suggests.
A London-based study, published in BMJ Open, found an association between the neurodegenerative condition and exposure to nitrogen dioxide and microscopic particles known as PM2.5.
Alzheimer’s Research UK described it is a “growing area of research”, but said the results should be treated with caution.
The researchers, from the University of London, Imperial College and King’s College London, used anonymous patient health records from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink, which collects data from GP practices.
They focused on 131,000 patients aged between 50 and 79 in 2004, who had not been diagnosed with dementia, registered at 75 general practices within the M25.
The health of the patients was tracked for an average of seven years, until they were diagnosed with dementia, died or left their GP practice.
Between 2005 and 2013, a total of 2181 patients (1.7 per cent) were diagnosed with dementia, 39 per cent of whom had Alzheimer’s disease and 29 per cent of whom had vascular dementia.
These diagnoses were found to be linked to ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5, based on estimates taken near the homes of patients in 2004.
Those living in areas with the top fifth of nitrogen dioxide levels had a 40 per cent increased risk of being diagnosed with dementia compared with those living in areas with the lowest, the researchers said.
A similar increase was seen with levels of PM2.5, they added.
The associations could not be explained by factors known to influence the development of the condition, but the links were more consistent for Alzheimer’s disease than vascular dementia.
The authors said:
“With the future global burden of dementia likely to be substantial, further epidemiological work is urgently needed to confirm and understand better recent findings linking air pollution to dementia.
“Our results suggest both regional and urban background pollutants may be as important as near-traffic pollutants.
“The cause of these neurodegenerative diseases is still largely unknown and may be multifactorial.
“While toxicants from air pollution have several plausible pathways to reach the brain, how and when they may influence neurodegeneration remains speculative.”
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