A critical review of the epidemiological evidence of effects of air pollution on dementia, cognitive function and cognitive decline in adult population

Sci Total Environ. 2021 Feb 25;757:143734. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143734. Epub 2020 Nov 25.


Dementia is arguably the most pressing public health challenge of our age. Since dementia does not have a cure, identifying risk factors that can be controlled has become paramount to reduce the personal, societal and economic burden of dementia. The relationship between exposure to air pollution and effects on cognitive function, cognitive decline and dementia has stimulated increasing scientific interest in the past few years. This review of the literature critically examines the available epidemiological evidence of associations between exposure to ambient air pollutants, cognitive performance, acceleration of cognitive decline, risk of developing dementia, neuroimaging and neurological biomarker studies, following Bradford Hill guidelines for causality. The evidence reviewed has been consistent in reporting associations between chronic exposure to air pollution and reduced global cognition, as well as impairment in specific cognitive domains including visuo-spatial abilities. Cognitive decline and dementia incidence have also been consistently associated with exposure to air pollution. The neuro-imaging studies reviewed report associations between exposure to air pollution and white matter volume reduction. Other reported effects include reduction in gray matter, larger ventricular volume, and smaller corpus callosum. Findings relating to ischemic (white matter hyperintensities/silent cerebral infarcts) and hemorrhagic (cerebral microbleeds) markers of cerebral small vessel disease have been heterogeneous, as have observations on hippocampal volume and air pollution. The few studies available on neuro-inflammation tend to report associations with exposure to air pollution. Several effect modifiers have been suggested in the literature, but more replication studies are required. Traditional confounding factors have been controlled or adjusted for in most of the reviewed studies. Additional confounding factors have also been considered, but the inclusion of these has varied among the different studies. Despite all the efforts to adjust for confounding factors, residual confounding cannot be completely ruled out, especially since the factors affecting cognition and dementia are not yet fully understood. The available evidence meets many of the Bradford Hill guidelines for causality. The reported associations between a range of air pollutants and effects on cognitive function in older people, including the acceleration of cognitive decline and the induction of dementia, are likely to be causal in nature. However, the diversity of study designs, air pollutants and endpoints examined precludes the attribution of these adverse effects to a single class of pollutant and makes meta-analysis inappropriate.

Keywords: Air pollution; Cognitive function; Dementia; NO(2); O(3); PM.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Air Pollutants* / adverse effects
  • Air Pollutants* / analysis
  • Air Pollution* / adverse effects
  • Air Pollution* / analysis
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Dysfunction*
  • Dementia* / chemically induced
  • Dementia* / epidemiology
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis
  • Humans
  • Particulate Matter / analysis


  • Air Pollutants
  • Particulate Matter