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Exposure to Air Pollution Impairs Adults’ Cognitive Function, May Increase Inequality in Workforce Productivity

Exposure to air pollution is detrimental in a number of ways, including harming cognitive skills such as attention, memory, and problem solving. But availability of data to measure the effect of pollution on cognition has been lacking. A new study considered data from the brain-training game Lumosity to determine how air pollution affects U.S. adults’ cognitive skills. The study found that exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) impairs adults’ cognitive function, especially for those of prime working age, for new tasks, and for those with low cognitive ability, suggesting that air pollution may increase inequality in workforce productivity.

The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Queensland, appears as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

“This is the first time researchers have been able to study the adverse effects of pollution on cognition in a large group of working-age adults,” says Edson Severnini, associate professor of economics and public policy at CMU’s Heinz College, who coauthored the study. “Due to data limitations, previous studies have focused on only the young or the elderly.”

Using detailed data from 2015 to 2017 on 4.6 million user-play observations across seven games of Lumosity, researchers examined the effects of PM2.5 on seven cognitive domains in adults. Lumosity is a widely used, free online platform that aims to improve cognition, turning scientifically validated tasks into games for any age or skill level. The seven games tested verbal ability, attention, flexibility, memory, math skills, speed, and problem solving.

Researchers used daily variation in PM2.5 within geographic areas represented by the first three digits of users’ ZIP codes (derived from the users’ IP addresses) to identify the effects of short-term changes in exposure to air pollution on cognitive domains across different age groups and levels of cognitive ability (based on the initial performance in the games). They matched the ZIP codes to air quality monitors within 20 miles, and to weather (including wind), which affects the distribution of pollution. The more than 116,000 users were from across the United States, with heavy concentrations on the West coast, where Lumosity’s headquarters are located.

The study found that the average impact of exposure to daily PM2.5 was substantial, even at levels below current governmental and health guidelines. Among the seven cognitive domains studied, the effect of air pollution on memory was the strongest—equivalent to normal cognitive aging from the 30s to the 50s, the researchers concluded.

The study also found that the effects of air pollution on cognitive function are greatest for people under 50—the working-age population—with those learning new tasks suffering the most harm. Finally, people with low cognitive ability may be affected by fine particulates more than others, suggesting that air pollution may increase inequality by affecting the acquisition of skills and intensifying the divide between low- and high-skilled individuals.

“Based on our study, air pollution may play a significant role in furthering inequality in health, education, and labor market outcomes,” notes Andrea La Nauze, assistant professor of economics at the University of Queensland, who also coauthored the study. “Because low-skilled and less-experienced people may be more affected by PM2.5 than others, even when exposed to similar levels of pollution, these environmental insults may exacerbate existing gaps in workforce equity.”

The research was funded by the University of Pittsburgh and Heinz College at CMU.


Summarized from an NBER Working Paper, Air Pollution and Adult Cognition: Evidence from Brain Training by La Nauze, A (University of Queensland), and Severnini, ER (Carnegie Mellon University. Copyright 2021 The Authors. All rights reserved. 

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