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July 13, 2023

The link between mental health and the air we breathe

Air pollution causes up to 36,000 deaths every year in the UK – it is the most worrying environmental health risk we face today. But the effects of air pollution on our mental wellbeing are less well documented. In this post we present a roundup of the latest evidence that air pollution might be the cause of a range of mental health conditions and neurodegenerative disorders.  

The evidence linking air pollution and mental health

  • Air pollution may be associated with increased depressive and anxiety symptoms and behaviours, and alterations in brain regions implicated in risk of psychopathology. 
  • Areas of the brain including cerebral white matter, cortical grey matter, and basal ganglia might be the targets of traffic related air pollution leading to damage of the brain which could be involved in cognition changes. 
  • Fine articulate matter PM2.5 in polluted air can cause central nervous system (CNS) diseases, including a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD). 
  • Evidence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease found in brains of young people exposed to air pollution
  • Exposure to air pollution has been found to be associated with increased mental health service use among people recently diagnosed with psychotic and mood disorders. 
  • Air pollution is significantly associated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders. 
  • Exposure to air pollution is associated with lower test scores and increased likelihood of suspension from school in industrial areas.
  • Long-term exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and math tests and becomes more pronounced as people age. 
  • Living close to heavy traffic is associated with a higher incidence of dementia. 
  • A positive association has been found between residential levels of air pollution across London and being diagnosed with dementia.  


How to reduce your exposure to air pollution 

  • Check the air quality index before going outside to check your air quality. If it’s high, avoid exercising outdoors and heavily congested traffic areas/peak times where possible 
  • Wear a N95 mask in highly polluted areas (these masks filter fine particles)  
  • Turn off your car engine when parked up or in stationary traffic  
  • Consider using an air purifier in your home and car 
  • Exercise regularly, eat a well-balanced healthy diet and get adequate sleep to strengthen your immune system so you are better able to combat the effects of air pollution  
  • Drink plenty of filtered or distilled water to keep hydrated so the body is better able to deal with the effects of air pollution  
  • Reduce your stress levels where possible – do activities that help you to relax and de-stress – some ideas may be reading, having a bath, meditation, yoga or a walk in woodland 
  • If you use a log burner, make sure the wood you are using has a low moisture content and contains no chemical additives (such as preserved wood, like pallets) 
  • Avoid smoking, burning or using harsh chemicals 


Further reading  

Air pollution: How to reduce harm to your health – Harvard Health  

Clean Air Day 2023 Resources  


The information on our website should not be used as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.  If you have any specific questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider. 

Lasting Health