Photo credit: Muneeb Babar

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As an JAMA subscriber, I get an email almost every morning titled “AMA Morning Rounds.” I don’t think I would have found this open-access article if I didn’t get Morning Rounds, but I’m glad I did. The newsletter mentioned a Washington Post article about a new study showing the impact of air pollution on the brain. I follow literature about noise pollution and hearing loss, but not usually about air pollution. 

Researchers in Great Britain studied the brains of almost 40,000 adults age 44-82 from data collected as part of the large, multi-year UK biobank study. The researchers had previously identified a network of higher-order brain regions vulnerable to the effects of aging, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. For this report, they looked for evidence about how modifiable risk factors affected these regions. The three most significant risk factors were diabetes, traffic-related air pollution (as measured by nitrogen dioxide concentrations) and frequency of alcohol use.

Obviously, each person is in control of the frequency and amount of alcohol they consume. For several years it was thought that consumption of a small amount of alcohol was beneficial to the heart, but the latest evidence supports avoiding alcohol intake completely. Type 2 diabetes is not an inevitable part of aging. It is largely within individual control, and can be prevented by having a healthy diet, avoiding weight gain and exercising daily. Unfortunately, air pollution is something that cannot be avoided. People have to breathe. We must rely on government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency to help us avoid air pollution.

Why am I writing about air pollution on a blog about noise? Because air pollution from road traffic and road traffic noise are inextricably intertwined. Some road traffic noise is inevitable, coming from the interaction of rubber tires and pavement. Even bicycle tires make noise. But most road traffic noise comes from internal combustion engines, what I like to call the unwanted sound track of transportation noise. Internal combustion engines also produce particulate matter, independently associated with dementia and multiple other health problems.

The current administration’s push for the electrification of passenger vehicles and trucks is being done to reduce the impacts of gaseous vehicular emissions on climate change. In general, electric vehicles of all types are quieter than those powered by internal combustion engines. So, a push towards vehicle electrification has the benefit of making roads and highways quieter.

And, noise has been identified as a risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia. A quieter world, one with less road traffic noise and vehicular air pollution, will be a better and healthier world for all.

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