How does the haze impact our brains?

We are all aware of the damaging effect the haze has on our lungs and circulatory system, but how else is it affecting us? New evidence suggests that our brains are also an unfortunate victim of air pollution, both physically and hormonally.

Getting old before our time

A study published earlier this year suggests that exposure to air pollution is speeding up the brain’s aging process. Researchers conducted a study on 1,403 women and compared their brain volumes between 1996 and 2006 from MRI scans. By estimating their exposure during that period to an air pollutant of fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) that typically reduces visibility and causes the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated, the researchers found a direct correlation between levels of exposure to PM2.5 and a decrease in brain white matter. Importantly, loss of brain white is a well-established symptom of aging. That is, the greater the exposure to air pollution, the more the brains of these women had aged.

This association remained even after controlling for variables such as age, smoking, physical activity, blood pressure, body mass index, education and income.

“This tells us that the damage air pollution can impart goes beyond the circulatory system” said Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen the lead author of the study published in the Annals of Neurology.

Cabin Fever

Not only is brain size suffering from the effects of air pollution, but our mental wellbeing is also taking a blow.

We all know that feeling of being cooped up indoors all day, or even for weeks at a time. Emotionally it causes feelings of anxiety, sadness and helplessness, which in turn elevates blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and even suppresses the immune system. Couple our screen addicted lives with the toxic haze outdoors and you have the perfect recipe for social isolation via a new hermit-style existence.

However, even if this is music to your iPhone attached ears, psychological studies have shown that increased exposure to screen time has been associated with loss of empathy, lack of altruism and depression.

Au Naturel

So what is it about the great outdoors that is just so “great”? The fresh air, the beautiful scenery, the wildlife? Research has shown that being in a natural outdoor environment, or even just looking at scenes of nature can contribute to physical wellbeing by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and the production of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.

In addition, exposure to natural environments can provide us with an amazing coping mechanism in times of need. We are genetically programmed to be engrossed by trees, plants, water and other natural scenes, so much so that immersing ourselves in nature can distract us from pain and discomfort in other aspects of our lives.

So when nature is completely removed from our day-to-day lives we suffer. There is even a term for this; “Nature Deficiency Disorder”. And, of course, for every disorder there emerges a professional therapist seeking to provide a cure. Enter the eco-therapist. An eco-therapist focuses on the mental and physical benefits of spending time in nature. Whilst this might seem all too new-age and tree hugging, it is a profession that is fast gaining traction and some mainstream medicines are recommending eco-therapy as a supplement to other treatments.

But with the haze rising to hazardous levels across many parts of South East Asia, and no immediate sign of it abating, how are we going to prevent ourselves from turning into unhealthy, stressed out, cabin fevered hermits?

Stimulation while you work

It turns out that help may be closer in hand than we thought. Numerous psychological studies have shown that having plants in the office can increase memory retention by up to 20%, improve mental cognition and booster performance. This may seem all too simple a solution, but if the environment in which you spend 80% of your waking hours is a stark, functional box, it makes perfect sense to incorporate spots of lush greenery and natural aesthetic beauty. Even just a bunch of flowers has been shown to make people feel more relaxed, secure and happy.

And when the haze finally does blow over, put down that phone, close your laptop and get outside into the natural world. If there is a plus side to the current haze pollution in Singapore and surrounding countries, it must be that suddenly being deprived of our otherwise clear skies and natural beauty spots has raised our awareness of just how important nature is to our general health and well-being. When the current pollution clears, we may finally appreciate the great outdoors that has been on our doorstep all along.


About the author
Juliet Gordon is a freelance consultant and entrepreneur. She spent several years in the advertising industry before establishing her own online clothing company specialising in bespoke personalised t-shirts for parents and kids.  She has a degree in Psychology and is passionate about the application of psychology to business.