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Dementia warning: An open fire is associated with greater cognitive decline – study

Dementia: Dr Sara on benefits of being in nature

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A research collaboration between Lancaster University and Trinity College Dublin investigated the effects of an open fire in the home and the cognitive function of older people. “Exposure to indoor air pollution is known to affect respiratory and cardiovascular health, but little is known about its effects on cognitive function,” the researchers noted. The researchers measured the concentrations of airborne particulate matter (PM 2.5) arising from burning peat, wood or coal in residential open fires.

Burning peat lead to the “highest PM 2.5 concentrations” of 60μg/m3, followed by coal (30 μg/m3) and then wood (17 μg/m3).

Utilising data from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), the usage of open fires and the cognitive function of older people was examined.

Using a sample of nearly 7,000 older people, they found a “negative association between open fire usage and cognitive function”.

To note, cognitive function was analysed via word recall and verbal fluency tests.

“The negative association was largest and statistically strongest among women,” the authors noted.

“A finding explained by the greater exposure of women to open fires in the home, because they spent more time at home than men,” the researchers added.

This research study follows on from “a growing body of evidence” that indicates that exposure to PM 2.5 “is linked with damage to neurodevelopment and cognitive function”.

The authors stated: “Increasingly, a robust correlation has been found between PM concentrations in the outdoor environment and reduced brain function, both in different geographic settings and among different age groups.”

The Alzheimer’s Society acknowledged: “Air pollution has been a focus of several studies on cognitive impairment and dementia risk.

“There is evidence that tiny air pollution particles can enter the brain, but at this time we can’t say if they play a role in the development of dementia.

“There is a strong case for further research into the effect of air pollution on brain health.”

Most notably, the charity highlighted how PM 2.5 has been one of the most researched components of air pollution.

PM 2.5 is “40 times smaller than the width of a human hair” and one form is known as “magnetite”, which can be studied in the body due to its magnetic properties.

The charity pointed out that magnetite particles are released into the air by burning fuel; they are also naturally produced in the brain.

Research has “confirmed” that magnetite “can pass into the brain via the blood stream or directly through the thin lining of the nose”.

These particles were even identified in amyloid plaque proteins in the brain, which are abundant in Alzheimer’s disease.

Consequently, speculation ensued; is magnetite involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease?

“A direct link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s disease has not been found,” the charity stated.

However, “there are many questions still unanswered”, which means more research needs to be done.

To make a donation to dementia research, visit the Alzheimer’s Society.

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