Aspirin protects against mental impairments from air pollution exposure

NEW YORK — Despite the world making strides towards being more environmentally-friendly, there’s still a lot of junk in the air we all breathe. From city smog, to secondhand smoke, to traffic exhaust, air pollution is still a major issue in many places. Its impact on health not only affects breathing, but studies show it can be just as bad for the brain. Now, a new report finds people living near air pollution might be able to protect themselves simply by taking aspirin.

Researchers from Columbia University in New York warn that even just a few weeks of exposure to air pollution can impair mental performance. Despite this damage, their study finds nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin appear to counter pollution’s short-term effects.

“Despite regulations on emissions, short-term spikes in air pollution remain frequent and have the potential to impair health, including at levels below that usually considered hazardous,” says senior author Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in a university release. “Taking aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs appears to mitigate these effects, although policy changes to further restrict air pollution are still warranted.”

Inhaling smog literally dulls the brain

Researchers examined 954 older white men from the Boston area, enrolled in the Normative Aging Study, during their investigation. They looked at the link between exposure to fine particulate matter and black carbon and the group’s cognitive performance using the Global Cognitive Function (GCF) and Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) scales. Study authors gauged air pollution levels by examining a site in Boston.

Results show inhaling fine particulate matter (PM2.5) over 28 days led to lower GCF and MMSE scores among participants. However, men taking aspirin experienced fewer short-term cognitive impairments, according to test results.

The team does caution that there is no direct link between recent NSAID use and better cognitive performance. Researchers speculate that these drugs, especially aspirin, may curb the neuroinflammation and changes in blood flow to the brain pollution can cause.

Pollution’s link to dementia could make aspirin a life-saver

Previous studies find air pollution is especially dangerous for aging adults. Inhaling these toxins can possibly lead to decreasing brain volume, cognitive decline, and even the onset of dementia. Air pollution can also impede the development of young children.

Study authors say this is one of the first reports to look at the short-term impact of such exposure. The team is recommending that future studies examine the impact of specific chemical components in air pollution on brain health. Clinical trials testing NSAIDs can also help to validate aspirin’s potential as a pollution deterrent.

The study appears in the journal Nature Aging.