How Air Quality Affects Mental Health

Mental health and air quality

Take a moment to think about the air you breathe.  

It's an invisible, essential part of our lives, often overlooked until we're faced with its less pleasant qualities: smog-filled cityscapes, hazy skies, or the scent of industrial emissions. But the air we breathe is more than just a backdrop to our daily routines; it's a silent influence on our well-being, and its quality can significantly impact our mental health. 

Today, understanding the intricate connection between air quality and mental health has never been more crucial. From the bustling streets of our cities to the tranquility of our homes, the air we inhale carries far-reaching consequences for our psychological well-being. 

In this article, we’ll discover how the air we breathe shapes our mental health. 

Does Air Quality Affect the Brain?  

Poor air quality, especially high levels of air pollution and exposure to harmful airborne particles and gases, can harm cognitive function, brain health, and development.  

However, more research is necessary to fully understand how air quality affects your brain. The specific mechanisms through which air pollution affects the brain are still an active area of research, but the evidence suggests a strong connection between poor air quality and various neurological and cognitive impacts.  

Reducing exposure to air pollution through environmental policies and personal actions may mitigate these risks. 

Effects of Air Pollution on Mental Health  

Air pollution has been increasingly recognized as a significant environmental factor that can impact mental health. While the link between air pollution and physical health issues is well-established, emerging research suggests that poor air quality may also adversely affect mental well-being.  

So, here are some ways air quality affects mental health: 

Increased Risk of Mental Disorders 

Research published in the journal PLoS Biology has shown associations between exposure to air pollution and an increased risk of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. However, air pollution's impact on mental health is not yet fully understood.  

In a World Economic Forum report, the lead author of another air quality study, Clara G. Zundel, concluded that, "People who breathe polluted air experience changes within the brain regions that control emotions, and as a result, they may be more likely to develop anxiety and depression than those who breathe cleaner air." 

Inflammation and Neuroinflammation 

Inflammation is one possible cause of the cognitive impacts we see, as chronic inflammation is linked to a higher risk of mental disorders. Studies suggest that air pollution can induce systemic inflammation in the body, including the brain.  

Additionally, chronic inflammation is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, as well as other neurological disorders. 

Cognitive Impairment 

Poor air quality, particularly fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5), has been linked to cognitive impairment and a decline in cognitive function, leading to difficulties in thinking clearly, making decisions, and concentrating. This can contribute to frustration and helplessness, which can affect mental well-being. Additionally, recent air quality studies from the journal BMJ suggest that PM2.5 might be a risk factor for dementia.  

Stress and Anxiety 

Poor air quality can increase stress and anxiety, especially in densely populated urban areas. The knowledge that the air you breathe is polluted can cause worry and distress, leading to elevated stress and anxiety. In 2021, Frontiers published a study on university students that uncovered a relationship between air pollution levels and mental stress.  

Sleep Disruption 

Poor air quality can lead to sleep disturbances, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Sleep is crucial for brain health and cognitive function, so sleep disruption can indirectly affect brain function. Sleep problems are also closely linked to mental health issues, as they can contribute to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

Impact on Children 

Children exposed to air pollution may be particularly vulnerable to mental health effects, as early-life exposure can have long-lasting consequences on brain development. One study from the Journal of Affective Disorders found increased depression and suicidal ideation in young people exposed to air pollution. Furthermore, brain imaging showed evidence of structural changes that could account for these psychological impacts.  

In addition to the impacts of air pollution on mental health, poor air quality can impact a person's mental wellness in other ways. Poor air quality can lead to reduced physical activity, which can affect mental health by decreasing the release of endorphins and increasing feelings of lethargy and isolation. 

It’s important we continue the conversation of air quality and mental health and do what we can to reduce our risk.  

Worried About Air Quality?

Monitor the Particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map, or join PurpleAir’s mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home. Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.