SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time, a nationwide study reveals exposure to higher levels of air pollution is linked to greater declines in memory among older women, creating more Alzheimer’s-like brain atrophy than women who breathed cleaner air.

The findings by the University of Southern California were published Wednesday in Brain and involved data from 998 women ages 73 to 87.

“This is the first study to really show, in a statistical model, that air pollution is associated with changes in people’s brains and that those changes were then connected with declines in memory performance,” said Andrew Petkus, assistant professor of clinical neurology at the university’s Keck School of Medicine.

“Our hope is that by better understanding the underlying brain changes caused by air pollution, researchers will be able to develop interventions to help people with or at risk for cognitive decline.”

Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the fourth-leading cause of death in Utah. There is no cure or treatment.

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These findings not only emphasize renewed interest in the prevention of Alzheimer’s but also have relevance for Utah’s aging baby boomer population living in vulnerable areas along the Wasatch Front where air pollution spikes in winter and summer months.

Fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, is about 1/30th the size of a human hair and is problematic in northern Utah. The pollution builds as a result of vehicle exhaust, wood burning, industrial sources, and from businesses and homes. At times, the pollution can get so bad the metropolitan areas in Utah end up on a national list for having some of the filthiest air in the country.

Nels Holmgren, director of the state’s Division of Aging and Adult Services, has not seen the study but said any new information that sheds light on Alzheimer’s will be important for Utah’s older residents.

“I think anything that informs us on how to better help people as they age, we are obviously looking forward to that,” he said. “We are always interested in new information that would be helpful and useful to our seniors in the state.”

In this new study, researchers used data from women who had up to two brain scans five years apart as part of the Women’s Health Initiative that was launched in 1993. The initiative by the National Institutes of Health enrolled more than 160,000 women to address questions about heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis.

The scans were scored based on their similarity to Alzheimer’s disease patterns. Researchers also gathered data on where the women lived and environmental information documenting fine particle pollution levels.

When all that information was combined, a picture emerged that showed the link between higher pollution exposure with brain changes and memory problems.

“This study provides another piece of the Alzheimer’s disease puzzle by identifying some of the brain changes linking air pollution and memory declines,” Petkus said. “Each research study gets us one step closer to solving the Alzheimer’s disease epidemic.”