By 2050 it is estimated that nearly 14 million Americans and their families will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that ultimately renders the individual incapable of caring for themselves, and has an economic cost of one trillion dollars – more than the combined cost of treating cancer and heart disease combined. It is the most common form of dementia, and is incurable and unpreventable, affecting the memory and mental processing portions of the brain. While recent research has made strides in understanding the disease, the exact cause is still largely unknown.
However, in study by Keck School of Medicine of USC researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 1,403 older women who lived in geographic locations with higher levels of fine particulate matter in ambient air – the natural state of air in the outdoor environment. Fine particulate matter is smaller than 2.5 micrometers, and easily enters the lungs and possibly the bloodstream. Researchers examined the women’s white matter, the internal part of the brain responsible for determining how information is processed. MRI’s revealed significantly smaller white matter volumes across a wide range of brain areas, denoting a connection to air pollution and the health of white matter.
The findings indicate that outdoor air pollution, in the form of tiny particles released from power plants and automobiles, could nearly double the dementia risk in older women. If the results are applicable to the general population, fine particulate pollution in the ambient air may be responsible for about one out of every five cases of dementia.
Future research will focus on the damaging effects of the environment on the brain. Specifically, researchers want to know if the effects of pollution are the same for men as women, and whether current drugs under development will protect against air pollution exposure. It is believed that even very early life exposure has a negative impact. Therefore, researchers will need to collaborate with the Environmental Protection Agency to focus on ways to decrease air pollution across the US. Especially the states with the highest levels of air pollution, which is concentrated in the Midwest.
Alzheimer’s research has historically lagged behind that of other major illnesses including cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS. According to data obtained on the Alzheimer’s Association website, the National Institutes of Health spends over $6 billion a year on cancer research, over $4 billion on heart disease research and over $3 billion on HIV/AIDS research. But it spends only $480 million on Alzheimer’s research. However, with increased media coverage, the cause is gaining the attention of congress. In December of 2015, with bipartisan support, president Obama signed a law increasing the NIH budget for Alzheimer’s research by $350 million. This marks the largest ever increase and a 60% growth overall. Experts say $2 billion is necessary to find methods of treatment and prevention for Alzheimer’s disease by 2015.