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Home About Us Press Room Archived Press Releases 2012 Press Releases Bad Air Means Bad News for Seniors’ Brainpower

Embargoed Until
November 16, 2012, at 10 a.m. PST

Contact: Todd Kluss
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(202) 587-2839

Bad Air Means Bad News for Seniors’ Brainpower

Living in areas of high air pollution can lead to decreased cognitive function in older adults, according to new research presented in San Diego at The Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) 65th Annual Scientific Meeting.

This finding is based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Retirement Study. The analysis was conducted by Jennifer Ailshire, PhD, a National Institute on Aging postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Biodemography and Population Health and the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California.

“As a result of age-related declines in health and functioning, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the hazards of exposure to unhealthy air,” Ailshire said. “Air pollution has been linked to increased cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and even premature death, in older populations, and there is emerging evidence that exposure to particulate air pollution may have adverse effects on brain health and functioning as well.”

This is the first study to show how exposure to air pollution influences cognitive function in a national sample of older men and women. It suggests that fine air particulate matter — composed of particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller, thought to be sufficiently small that if inhaled they can deposit deep in the lung and possibly the brain — may be an important environmental risk factor for reduced cognitive function.

The study sample included 14,793 white, black, and Hispanic men and women aged 50 and older who participated in the 2004 Health and Retirement Study (a nationally representative survey of older adults). Individual data were linked with data on 2004 annual average levels of fine air particulate matter from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality System monitors across the country. Cognitive function was measured on a scale of 1 to 35 and consisted of tests assessing word recall, knowledge, language, and orientation.

Ailshire discovered that those living in areas with high levels of fine air particulate matter scored poorer on the cognitive function tests. The association even remained after accounting for several factors, including age, race/ethnicity, education, smoking behavior, and respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

Fine air particulate matter exposures ranged from 4.1 to 20.7 micrograms per cubic meter, and every ten point increase was associated with a 0.36 point drop in cognitive function score. In comparison, this effect was roughly equal to that of aging three years; among all study subjects, a one-year increase in age was associated with a drop 0.13 in cognitive function score.

GSA’s meeting — the country’s largest interdisciplinary conference in the field of aging — is taking place at the San Diego Convention Center from November 14 to 18. An estimated 4,000 professionals are expected to attend and the program schedule contains more than 500 scientific sessions featuring research presented for the first time. Ailshire’s presentation, “The Hazards of Bad Air: Fine Air Particulate Matter and Cognitive Function in Older U.S. Adults,” is taking place at 10 a.m. on Friday, November 16, in Exhibit Hall A of the Convention Center.

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The Gerontological Society of America (GSA) is the nation's oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education, and practice in the field of aging. The principal mission of the Society — and its 5,400+ members — is to advance the study of aging and disseminate information among scientists, decision makers, and the general public. GSA’s structure also includes a policy institute, the National Academy on an Aging Society, and an educational branch, the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education.

Click here for a printable PDF version of this press release.

Mildred M. Seltzer Distinguished Service Recognition

Presented to C. Joanne Grabinski, PhD, Eastern Michigan University, and Mary Alice Wolf, PhD, Saint Joseph University.

This award honors colleagues who are near retirement or recently retired. Recipients are individuals who have been actively involved in AGHE through service on committees, as elected officers, and/or have provided leadership in one of AGHE’s grant-funded projects.

Administrative Leadership Award

Presented to Tammy M. Bray, PhD, Oregon State University

This award honors administrators on AGHE member campuses who have made exceptional efforts in support of gerontology or geriatrics education.

David A. Peterson Gerontology & Geriatrics Education Best Paper of the Volume Award

Presented to Nina M. Silverstein, PhD, University of Massachusetts Boston; Elizabeth Johns, MS, University of Massachusetts Boston; and Judith A. Griffin, MA, MS, University of Massachusetts Boston, for the article “Students Explore Livable Communities.” Honorable mention is given to Emily J. Robbins, MS, Miami University; Jennifer M. Kinney, PhD, Miami University; and Cary S. Kart, PhD, Miami University, for the article “Promoting Active Engagement in Health Research: Lessons Learned from an Undergraduate Gerontology Capstone Course.”

The purpose of this award is to recognize excellence in scholarship in academic gerontology in AGHE’s official journal, Gerontology & Geriatrics Education.

Graduate Student Paper Award

Presented to Deborah Gray, MBA, University of Massachusetts Boston, for the paper “Weight and Wealth: The Relationship between Obesity and Net Worth for Pre-Retirement Age Men and Women.”

This award acknowledges excellence in scholarly work conducted by an AGHE Annual Meeting student attendee.

Book Award for Best Children’s Literature on Aging

Presented to Caitlin Dale Nicholson and Leona Morinn-Nelson for “Niwechihaw/I help” in the primary reader (pre-K to 2nd grade) category, and Ann Grifalconi and Jerry Pickney for “Ain’t Nobody A Stranger to Me” in the elementary reader (3rd to 5th grade) category.

This award recognizes portrayals of meaningful aging in children’s literature.