SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A neuroscientist at the University of Utah is conducting a study that looks into how small bouts of air pollution can interfere with a person’s cognitive function and the development of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's.
Dr. Dustin Hammers, a neuropsychologist at the U of U, says studies show the lungs and other vital organs become inflamed when a person is exposed to bad air.
“Air pollution leads to inflammation in the body – all throughout the body – and some of that inflammation may make its way to the brain and lead to some of the difficulties with processing information quickly,” he said.
The doctor believes there may be a direct link between the inflammation air pollution creates in the lungs and decreased cognitive function in the brain, specifically in older adults.
“This can be connected with nerve cell damage in the brain,” Hammers said. “That inflammation that happens in the body, happens in the brain, and that can damage cells and for older adults, may be playing a role speeding up the process of something like Alzheimer’s disease.”
Hammers is conducting a study this year of 50 participants over the age of 65, living along the Wasatch Front, to see how their cognitive function is affected during bad air days in Utah.
Researchers will be taking blood tests to check for enzymes that point to inflammation in the body.
“These are folks who are going to be living in Utah, being out and about during our periods of inversion during the winter,” Hammers said. “[We’re] going to be assessing whether they’re seeing any differences in their cognitive abilities during the winter versus during the fall when the air quality is good.”
Dr. Brian Moench with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment says he believes the study is vital in the push for more legislation to regulate Utah’s bad air.
Moench said it should open more people’s eyes to the negative effects of air pollution on the body.
“We hope that our policy makers will pay some attention to this because what’s more important than our children’s ability to think? Our children’s intelligence? Their ability to perform in school?” Moench said.
There are currently 20 participants in the study.
Hammers says they are looking for 30 more. They are looking for Utah residents who are 65 years of age or older and living along the Wasatch Front. Anyone interested in participating can contact the University of Utah Alzheimer’s Center at 801-581-7863 or visit www.utahmemory.org.