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Alarming study: Smog may be damaging your brain

Pollution isn’t just something that affects your environment: it actually shrinks the volume of your brain mass, a shocking new study finds.

Lead researcher Elissa Wilker of the Harvard Medical School in Boston found that long-term exposure to tiny particles of air pollution could result in changes in the brain that could lead to memory problems or even dementia, according to a HealthDay News report.

Fine particles no bigger than 2.5 micrometers that are released by car exhaust, burning wood, and other sources could shrink the brain over time and result in a growing incidence of what are known as “silent strokes,” which is when a person feels no symptoms but receives some of the negative effects of a stroke.

Wilker said that air pollution is associated “with insidious effects of brain aging,” even in people who are otherwise healthy, and that long-term exposure to this type of pollution is equivalent to a full year of brain aging.

But the study wasn’t conclusive on whether air pollution is actually responsible for increasing the aging process for the brain or causing more silent strokes.

A total of 943 adults were studied in the long-term project, which focused on people in Framingham, Mass. None of them had dementia or had endured a stroke when the study began. They lived in areas where pollution was fairly low compared to the rest of the world.

Between 1995 and 2005, MRIs from the participants helped researchers see how their brains changed over time, and found that even a smalla mount of pollution could result in a 0.3 percent smaller brain size, and a 46 percent increased risk of silent strokes — which are associated with dementia.

Air pollutants in the past have been linked to chronic inflammatory diseases, including lung disease as well as brain disease, and scientists have tried to make the connection before, but typically they have done so with children rather than aging adults — the participants in this study were at least 60.

Scientists aren’t sure why pollution causes this effect in people, but they believe it may be due to the fact that pollutants cause inflammation in the brain.

The findings were published in the journal Stroke last week.