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Top Ways to Protect Your Brain From Air Pollution

Simple steps to help keep your brain at its best

By Austin Perlmutter, MD



  • Air pollution is increasingly linked to increased risk for Alzheimer's disease, anxiety and depression

  • Unlike other drivers of poor brain health, air pollution is too often ignored or completely overlooked

  • We can all take simple steps to help reduce our personal and global exposure to brain-damaging air pollutants

  • New, but limited research suggests changing dietary habits could help mitigate air pollution effects

We often think about risk factors for the brain as the things we can clearly see. Eating junk food. Not exercising. Experiencing high levels of stress. But in recent years, we’ve learned that the subtle and sometimes invisible exposures may also be contributing to conditions like Alzheimer’s and depression.

One of the more important of these less publicized risk factors for brain health is the effect of air pollution on our brains. Air pollution can come in a number of forms. Usually, we’re talking about PM 2.5 (tiny particles that can penetrate from our lungs into our bloodstream) as well as things like ozone and nitrogen oxides.

In a number of recent studies, higher exposure to air pollution has been linked to higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease, depression and more recently, anxiety. Usually, these studies are looking at outdoor air pollution, specifically exposure to PM 2.5s.

Why is air pollution linked to brain problems? One of the top theories relates to increased brain inflammation. In research conducted on brains, people exposed to higher levels of air pollution had evidence of increased inflammation, and a number of animal studies substantiate this connection. Other drivers may include oxidative stress and epigenetic changes.

Obviously, we can’t all completely remove our exposure to air pollution. But there are nonetheless ways to help mitigate these risks. Here are some of the top strategies

1. If you currently smoke, get help to quit

2. Minimize (as possible) exposure to smoke (that includes being around people who are smoking, unventilated wood fires, wildfire smoke, etc.)

3. On days with higher outdoor air pollution, minimize outdoor exposure

4. When cooking indoors, ventilate (use the hood, open the windows)

5. Install and regularly change out your home air filters (higher MERV is usually better)

6. Consider a HEPA filter air purifier for your home

7. Minimize use of indoor incense (a hidden source of PM 2.5)

In addition to these key measures, some (albeit limited) data suggests that diet could help offset the negative effects of air pollution. Specifically, researchers have highlighted the role of B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D and omega-3 fats, and there’s some interest in individual foods like broccoli sprouts (which contain the Nrf2 upregulator sulforaphane) in targeting pathways activated by air pollution.

Air pollution is a global issue that impacts us all. We may not fully recognize the impact of this hidden factor on our overall and brain health for many decades to come. This is why, in addition to taking personal steps to reduce exposure to air pollution, we should also consider minimizing as possible our impact on creating additional air pollution. To this end, some strategies to consider include:

1. Carpooling when possible

2. Turning off your car engine while idling

3. Switching to electric lawn equipment (gas-powered versions are heavy air polluters)

4. If purchasing a new car, look for a low-pollution vehicle

5. Minimize car trips in favor of public transportation, walking or biking

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A version of the article was published on

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nancy klaiber
nancy klaiber
Mar 18, 2023

Is exposure to gas fireplace fumes bad for your brain?

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