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Truth Behind the Headlines: Elderly women exposed to high levels of air pollution may be at up to double the risk of Alzheimer's

The media are reporting that long-term exposure to high air pollution levels may raise older women's risk of Alzheimer's-related brain shrinkage by up to double.  


They refer to a research team which has found that the more air pollution women were exposed to over five-year-period, the greater the shrinking of the brain areas vulnerable to Alzheimer's. Women exposed to the highest levels of air pollution in the study were at twice the risk of brain shrinkage those with the lowest exposure 


Women are disproportionally more affected by Alzheimer’s compared with men, making them potentially more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution.  

Using our recommended five tips, Global Action Plan reviewed the study:


Questions to ask to get to the truth Our response
1. Does the article refer to a report to back up its claims?

The article refers to a study published in Neurology Online  PM2.5 associated with gray matter atrophy reflecting increased Alzheimers risk in older women. 

2. Who is behind the study it refers to?

The lead author was from the Departments of Preventive Medicine and Neurology and the Center for Economic and Social Research (M.G.), University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  


The data was collected on behalf of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). The WHI is a long-term national health study exploring research questions on women’s health and aging. 

3. How fantastical and radical is the claim that is being made?

Each participant provided the researchers with access to their health records to control for factors including typical levels of physical activity and alcohol/tobacco habits. 


The researchers used each woman's residential address to estimate their average exposure to air pollution over a three-year period.   Participants brains were then scanned using an MRI machine.  The MRI brain scans were examined for signs of brain shrinkage, that can indicate Alzheimer’s disease.  


4. What geographical region does the claim refer to?


5. What is the sample size of the study?

Researchers studied the changes in brain volume of 712 women aged 78 or over, over the course of five years.


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