From Where We Are

Exposure to air pollution linked to Alzheimer’s, memory loss

USC Professor Caleb Finch details how air pollution can affect the long-term mental health of the uniquely vulnerable USC student body.

USC School of Gerontology researchers have studied the links between pollution and old-age memory loss for many years. Professor Caleb Finch, an expert on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is on this team of collaborators.

Caleb Finch: So we’re colleagues, we teach together, and we thought that we should combine a short publication summarizing our findings, which both indicate that air pollution approaches in public health are succeeding and with potentially less impact on risks of reducing the risks of dementia.

Finch explains that air with a form of pollution stemming from PM 2.5 particles is linked with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory loss. They found that in the last few years, there was a decrease in these particles.

These findings are especially relevant for residents of Los Angeles and USC students as air pollution and smog is an ongoing health concern given gasoline emissions and seasonal fires in the regions around the city.

Caleb Finch: Well, the U.S. is close to major freeways. That’s a fact of life. So we are exposed to the particles from those freeways. And then of course, if there are fires in the hills near Los Angeles. That has happened in the last year or two. That it combines with that smoke combines with the air particles.

Finch reaffirms that this is ongoing research. He and his team are continuing to dig deeper into this issue, as Finch focuses on the experimental side of the research, and his colleagues on the societal implications. At this point, no conclusions can be drawn as to what is the cause of this phenomenon.

Caleb Finch: Well, we simply don’t know. There’s no good answer, and the chemical composition of the air particles does not tell us anything obvious that has changed. The density of air particles — PM 2.5 — has slightly decreased during this time, so it’s a puzzle. We don’t have a good answer to understand it. And sometimes scientists have to say we just don’t know.

Professor Finch will continue his contributions to studying air pollution and its effects on health. But this remains a part of a greater discussion on sustainability, climate change, and global health rooted deeply in political and economic policy.