Can dirty air lead to a higher prevalence of mental illness? A new studysuggests that as air quality declines, the prevalence of mental health disorders increases.
The study looked at the data of millions of people in the United States and Denmark. The researchers found a correlation between exposure to air pollution and a higher rate of certain mental health conditions. There was a 29% increase in instances of bipolar disorder in areas with poorer air quality. In addition, childhood data from Denmark noted that people who were exposed to polluted air in the first ten years of life were at a greater risk of developing schizophrenia, depression, and personality disorders.
In the United States portion of the study, researchers looked at health insurance claims for 151 million Americans, noting diagnoses for mental health conditions between 2003 and 2013. There was no way to gauge an individual’s exposure to air pollution. In an effort to track air pollution exposure, the study investigated air quality in each person’s county of residence. Researchers divided the counties into groups based on levels of pollution and found an increase in mental health diagnoses in those counties with the highest pollution level.
Is Air Pollution the Cause?
None of this data proves that air pollution is to blame for mental health disorders. It only demonstrates a correlation. The data alone can’t establish a causal link. Experts have noted that the study could lead to further research that may explain the correlation.
However, animal research has been done that shows a link between air pollution and mental health disorders. Research has shown, for example, that pollution particles can make their way through a rodent’s nose and into their brain. In addition, lab animals exposed to air pollution have demonstrated signs of brain disorders, depression-like symptoms, and impaired learning and memory. Researchers warn that this data does not mean that pollution has the same effect on humans.
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