Long-term exposure to air pollution linked to depression, anxiety

‘Air pollution is increasingly recognized as an important environmental risk factor for mental health’

All that time sitting in traffic could be getting you down, but it might not be the other drivers. It might be the exhaust from their vehicles.

According to a decade-long study of more than 389,000 participants, long-term exposure to multiple air pollutants increased the risk of depression and anxiety.

“Air pollution is increasingly recognized as an important environmental risk factor for mental health,” the researchers wrote. “However, epidemiologic evidence on long-term exposure to low levels of air pollutants with incident depression and anxiety is still very limited.”

For their study, which was published Wednesday in JAM Psychiatry, the scientists drew their cohort using data from the UK Biobank. None of the participants had ever been diagnosed with depression or anxiety at the beginning. Data were analyzed from May 1 to October 10, 2022.

The team concluded that “estimates of long-term exposure to multiple air pollutants was associated with increased risk of depression and anxiety,” and the results might have “important implications for policy making in air pollution control.”

During the decade of observation, 13,131 people were diagnosed with depression, and 15,835 were diagnosed with anxiety. According to the researchers’ analysis, participants exposed to the highest levels of pollution were 16% more likely to develop clinical depression and 11% more likely to develop anxiety.

Anna Hansell, professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Leicester, told the Daily Mail the study provides “further evidence” of the possible effects of air pollution on the brain.

“This well-conducted new study found associations between air pollution and anxiety and depression in the UK, which experiences lower air pollution than many countries worldwide,” she added.

The World Health Organization said last year that 99% of the world’s population live in an area with unacceptable pollution levels.

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