Parkinson’s Disease and Air Pollution
Updated on: November 2022
Written by: Becky Dotson
We all know that breathing polluted air is bad for us. It has been proven to cause respiratory issues, heart disease, and even lung cancer. However, there is now new evidence that shows air pollution may be a contributor to the development of Parkinson’s Disease.
Look for the Signs
Losing your sense of smell and small handwriting are two early signs/symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
By the Numbers
Almost one million people in the United States, 10 million worldwide, are currently living with Parkinson’s.
Air Pollution Impacts
The World Health Organization estimates as many as seven million people worldwide die from the effects of air pollution every year.
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What is Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a slowly progressive neurodegenerative disease that was first discovered in 1817 by Dr. James Parkinson. The healthy neurons in our brain produce a chemical called dopamine which is needed to regulate movement. PD causes the neurons in the brain that control movement to weaken and/or die. Experts don’t know why this happens.
One of the most obvious signs of Parkinson’s Disease is shaking or tremors on one side of the body in either the hand or the foot. But PD can also cause balance and coordination problems, stiffness in the muscles, and slow movement. People with Parkinson’s can also experience the following:
- Loss of smell
- Shuffling gait
- Walking difficulties
- Unable to maintain a steady, upright posture
- Voice changes
As the disease progresses, you may also experience trouble chewing or swallowing, soft or slurred speech, restless legs, muscle cramps, memory loss, trouble sleeping, unable to regulate body temperature, sexual dysfunction, and loss of bladder control.
Norepinephrine is a chemical in our body that controls things like heart rate and blood pressure. Some people with PD also experience a decline in this chemical which can lead to dizziness, feeling faint, lightheadedness, and sometimes even passing out.
Right now, there is no known cure for Parkinson’s, but there are treatments to help make the disease manageable.
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Who is at Risk for Parkinson’s Disease
There are still a lot of unknowns about Parkinson’s Disease. Researchers aren’t yet sure what causes it or why it happens. But experts do know repeated head injuries and significant exposure to pesticides and certain heavy metals can increase your risk of the disease. Other risk factors include:
- Age – Your risk of developing PD increases with age
- Genetics – Some people may inherit altered genes that increase the risk of Parkinson’s
- Gender – Men are 1.5 times more likely than women to have Parkinson’s
The Link Between Parkinson’s Disease and Air Pollution
Scientists also believe environmental factors can be a cause of Parkinson’s. A 2022 study, published in the journal JAMA Neurology, is giving more credence to that possibility. The study shows that nitrogen dioxide in air pollution may increase a person’s risk of developing PD. Nitrogen dioxide is emitted from power plants and fuel-burning vehicles like buses, cars, off-road equipment, and trucks.
Parkinson’s is currently the fastest-growing brain disease in the world. Of the 10 million people worldwide who have it, half of them live in Asia. This study was conducted in Seoul, South Korea where there tends to be a higher level of air pollution than in the United States. Study participants who lived in areas with the highest nitrogen dioxide levels were 40 percent more likely to develop PD than those who lived in areas with lower exposure levels.
What researchers haven’t determined yet is if air pollution causes Parkinson’s or just speeds up the process of developing the disease. Scientists are hoping this finding will be a big step in helping them determine and understand how and why PD develops.
How I Can Protect Myself Air Pollution
Air pollution has been linked to many health concerns and conditions. Parkinson’s Disease is just the latest in a growing list that includes respiratory issues, heart disease, and lung cancer. Protecting yourself from polluted air is important. While that may seem like an insurmountable task, there are things you can do to ensure you’re breathing cleaner, healthier air.
It’s Quitting Time
If you are currently a smoker, there’s no better time than the present to quit. There are several over-the-counter products to help you quit, if you’re ready. If you aren’t a smoker, then stay away from it. Don’t allow inside your home or frequent bars that allow smoking and avoid the smoking areas of public places, so you aren’t exposed to secondhand smoke.
Check the Daily Pollution Forecasts
These days, it’s pretty easy to know what the air quality is on any given day where you live. Most local newscasts will let you know when air quality is going to be worse than normal during the weather report. Many cities post air quality alerts on their electronic signs you see along the interstate or highway. And there’s even an app for that! Air Now is a U.S. government website and an app you can download to get daily air quality reports for your zip code.
In recent years, more awareness and effort have been put into developing electric vehicles and equipment that would otherwise traditionally run on gasoline or diesel. Everything from electric cars to weed eaters can be purchased and are a great way to cut down on emissions.
Stand Back from the Gas Pump
Benzene is a known human carcinogen that is in gasoline. Exposure to it can cause all sorts of health issues – everything from childhood leukemia to blood disorders to dizziness. When you’re filling up your gas tank, simply step away from it so you won’t be breathing in the fumes while you’re refueling.
Be Mindful of When You Exercise
Exercise is always a good idea. However, if you exercise outside, try not to do it in areas with high traffic. Vehicle fumes cause pollution. And since exercise causes you to take in more oxygen than normal, you’ll be exposed to air pollution at a higher rate.
Invest in an Air Purifier
An air purifier will help you control the quality of the air inside your home. The units are designed to pull harmful particles out of the air and send cleaner, purified air back out. They are known to help alleviate the symptoms associated with allergies, asthma and other respiratory issues. They can also just help you breathe easier because they dramatically improve the quality of the air around you.