When you think about the causes of dementia, age probably springs first to mind as it is primarily associated with Alzheimer’s, a disease which hits the older adult age groups the hardest. Diabetes and high cholesterol are also in the high risk category, as are family history, smoking and alcohol use, according to Stanford Medicine. One cause you may not have associated with this devastating condition is air pollution, but according to a recent study conducted by the University of California San Diego, there is a link.
If you’re thinking that this doesn’t affect you as someone living far from a busy highway or industrial facility, you could be in for a scary surprise. The pollutants cited in the study are fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) “associated with accelerated age-related cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD),” according to the study’s authors from UCSD’s psychiatry and aging departments.
They looked at 1100 men between the ages of 56 and 68 and saw a decline in cognitive performance related to higher exposure to the studied pollutants, notably concluding that “risk for later life cognitive decline or progression to dementia may begin in midlife.” In other words, environmental factors in your home and neighborhood now can contribute to devastating health impacts later.
Higher PM levels can be a health and safety factor inside your homes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, our indoor air can be up to five times as polluted as the air we breathe outdoors. “Indoor PM can be generated through cooking, combustion activities (including burning of candles, use of fireplaces, use of unvented space heaters or kerosene heaters, cigarette smoking) and some hobbies.”
Outdoor sources coming into our homes can include automotive and industrial air pollution, as well as smoke and ash from wildfires, which can spread thousands of miles beyond the flames.
In addition to posing a dementia risk, PM can aggravate heart and lung diseases and irritate eyes, noses and throats.
NO2 can also originate inside your home. The National Institutes of Health shared on its website: “The most important indoor sources include tobacco smoke and gas-, wood-, oil-, kerosene- and coal-burning appliances such as stoves, ovens, space and water heaters and fireplaces, particularly unflued or poorly maintained appliances.”
Outdoor sources that could easily enter your home include NO2 from gas-burning vehicles, lawn and garden equipment, and construction sites, all of which can be as close as the yard or property line beyond your window.
In addition to posing a dementia risk, NO2 can also aggravate respiratory issues, especially among asthma patients, can contribute to developing asthma and has been linked to learning disabilities in children and Parkinson Disease in other studies.
Wellness Planning Strategies
Architects, interior designers and remodeling professionals are looking at these issues when they take on residential projects. San Francisco-based Daniel Ian Smith has to address wildfire considerations for his Bay Area clients, along with the other factors that contribute to a healthier, safer urban area home. “For extensive renovations of San Francisco Victorians, new HVAC systems with HEPA filtration are a no-brainer. However, for the simplest design projects, we still plan for standalone air purifiers in each bedroom and living room. They are invaluable during fire season, but there’s increasing evidence that they’re just as valuable for removing common indoor pollutants all year long,” he commented in a Facebook design industry group discussion. These solutions he cites can all address PM risks.
Smith also observed the impacts of California’s phase out of gas appliances for new construction homes as advancing clients’ awareness of indoor pollutants. “Combined with a discussion on the federal level, concern has spread all the way to our East Coast clients.” He noted that while gas has long been a gold standard for cooking, induction is proving an attractive alternative to his clients. This can help eliminate a cause of NO2 exposure.
Architecture firm Mithun, with offices in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles, frequently works on large scale multifamily and mixed use projects. Principal Hilary Noll pointed out that recent California and Bay Area codes now require enhanced ventilation and filtration systems, and other proactive measures for buildings within targeted areas of poor air quality. “Many of our multifamily housing projects have installed MERV 13 prior to this being a code requirement,” she shared in an email.
“Another strategy we use is the incorporation of heat or energy recovery ventilation systems (HRVs or ERVs) which supply continuous, filtered fresh air while tempering air intake with the exhaust to improve indoor thermal comfort as well indoor air quality. Those are being installed in every residential unit, exceeding energy code compliance,” she noted.
Noll also commented on the elimination of natural gas within building systems and appliances in favor of electrification, which she cited as “another proven strategy to improve indoor air quality and specifically pollutants associated with fossil fuel combustion including nitrogen dioxide.”
Wellness Maintenance Strategies
Kim Levell designs for homeowners in Tampa and Chapel Hill, North Carolina and suggested clean building practices and nontoxic materials in another designer group discussion on Facebook. “I have air cleaners I recommend. Cleaning chemicals, forever chemicals, poor water, things like PFAs and use of toxins are everywhere,” she declared. “Off-gassing of furniture and building products concern me more than a gas range that is properly ventilated,” she added.
Studies have shown that many homeowners don’t use their kitchen vent fans because they’re noisy and inefficient, so there are gas stoves that should be properly ventilated, but aren’t. Plus, some fans that can fairly be described as ‘working’ merely recirculate air into the room.
When replacing appliances with a design professional like Levell or Smith as part of a new build or remodel, you’ll get advice on quiet models suitable for your cooking surface. When simply replacing appliances with a retailer, be sure to ask about pairing your new (or existing) cooktop or range with a properly sized and rated model that will keep your kitchen cleaner and safer. In addition to enjoying the benefits of a healthier, more comfortable home today, it could contribute to your health in future years too.