Dementia affects tens of millions of people worldwide. Common risk factors include age, family history, and genetics. But new research points to an additional factor that might affect the chances of developing dementia: living near a major, busy road.
Dementia describes a wide range of brain illnesses that progressively lead to the loss of cognitive functioning. It affects reasoning, memory, behavior, and the ability to perform daily tasks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) report that approximately 47.5 million adults are currently affected by dementia worldwide.
The most common risk factors are age, family history, and hereditary background. While these are outside of one’s control, there are additional risk factors that could be controlled. These include avoiding head trauma and other conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
Emerging research highlights a new element that might influence the chances of developing dementia – living close to major, busy roads, such as highways or motorways.
Researchers from Public Health Ontario, Canada – in collaboration with several Canadian universities and Health Canada – have set out to examine the link between residential proximity to major roads and the incidence of dementia in Ontario.
Their results were published in The Lancet.
The scientists were motivated by existing research that has previously linked living near a major road to negative effects on the residents’ cognition. Some studies have suggested that exposure to traffic and its side effects, such as noise and pollution, might contribute to neurodegenerative pathology.
In this new study, the Canadian researchers followed a total of 6.6 million Ontarians aged between 20 and 85 for over a decade, between 2001 and 2012.
The team used postcodes to determine the proximity of the residents to major roadways. The researchers also used the participants’ medical records to see if they developed dementia, Parkinson’s, or MS over the years.
Almost everyone (95 percent of the participants) in the study lived within 1 kilometer of a major road. Over the 10-year period, the researchers identified 243,611 cases of dementia, 31,577 cases of Parkinson’s disease, and 9,247 cases of MS.
Researchers found no association between living next to a major roadway and developing Parkinson’s disease or MS. However, dementia was found to be more common among people who lived closer to busy roads.
The study revealed that up to 1 in 10 cases of dementia among residents living within 50 meters of a major road could be attributed to traffic exposure. Additionally, the closer people lived to the busy roads, the higher their risk of developing dementia was.
Between 7 and 11 percent of the dementia cases identified were attributable to major road proximity.
The risk decreased the farther away people lived from the main road. The results suggest that the risk of dementia was 7 percent higher for those living within 50 meters of a major roadway. This dropped to 4 percent for those living within 50-100 meters, 2 percent for those at 101-200 meters, and there was no increase in risk for those living more than 200 meters away.
Dr. Chen and team also found a link between long-term exposure to two common pollutants – nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter – and the incidence of dementia.
Although the link between dementia and road proximity weakened when researchers adjusted for these two pollutants, this association did not fully account for the entire near-road effect. This suggests that other pollutants, or even factors such as noise, could play a role.
Strengths of this study include its large scale, as well as the access that researchers had to detailed medical and residential information over a period of 10 years. The study also adjusted for factors including socioeconomic status, education, body mass index, and smoking.
Limitations of the study include its observational nature, which means that it could not establish causality. Furthermore, the pollution exposure was estimated based on the postcode, so the study could not consider the pollution that each individual may have been exposed to.
The authors highlight the significance of their study in light of the growing prevalence of dementia, and the limited information researchers and healthcare professionals have on its causes and prevention.
“Our study suggests that busy roads could be a source of environmental stressors that could give rise to the onset of dementia. Increasing population growth and urbanization have placed many people close to heavy traffic, and with widespread exposure to traffic and growing rates of dementia, even a modest effect from near-road exposure could pose a large public health burden. More research to understand this link is needed, particularly into the effects of different aspects of traffic, such as air pollutants and noise.”
Dr. Hong Chen
Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas from the University of Montana – who did not collaborate with researchers on this study but who has conducted extensive research on the link between air pollutants and brain pathology – also weighed in on the findings.
The mounting evidence linking dementia and road traffic, she says, “opens up a crucial global health concern for millions of people […] The health repercussions of living close to heavy traffic vary considerably among exposed populations, given that traffic includes exposures to complex mixtures of environmental insults […] We must implement preventive measures now, rather than take reactive actions decades from now.”