A new study reveals harmful associations between long-term exposure to air pollution and increased risk of depression in older adults. While numerous studies have identified the dangers of air pollutants, little is known about air pollution and mental health conditions among the geriatric population.
To fill the gap, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health studied the claims of more than 8.9 million people older than 64. Of the people involved in the study, 57% were female, and 90% were white.
What air pollutants affect health?
Many pollutants can affect health but the researchers chose three that are the most common. These three common pollutants are as follows.
Fine particulate matter.
These are tiny particles like those that can make the air look hazy when pollution levels are high.
This is also known as smog and comes from sources like tailpipes and smokestacks.
This is among the group of gases that form when fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gas, or diesel are burned.
What did the research show?
Even at low levels, the researchers found an association between depression diagnoses and exposure to air pollution. These air pollutants have “implications for both environmental regulation and public health management.”1 The study results revealed that nitrogen dioxide exposure was particularly more dangerous to older adults with
- cardiovascular disease,
- or neurological diseases.1
Mental health conditions are not a normal part of aging
According to the Centers for Disease Control, late-onset depression is often underdiagnosed. The underdiagnosis is likely because healthcare providers mistake symptoms as a symptom of an illness or the life changes that may occur as we age.2
Qiu et al., (2023) hope environmental regulators and public health officials will consider the impact of air pollution when considering the prevention of depression in older adults.
“We hope this study can inspire researchers to further consider possible environmental risk factors (such as air pollution and living environment) for the prevention of geriatric depression, to understand the disease better moving forward, and to improve the delivery of mental health care services among older adults.”1
- Qiu X, Shi L, Kubzansky LD, et al. Association of long-term exposure to air pollution with late-life depression in older adults in the US. JAMA Network Open. 2023 Feb 1;6(2):e2253668. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.53668
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression is not a normal part of growing older. Published September 14, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/depression/index.html