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Defy Dementia Episode 7: Let’s Clear the Air – Reducing Air Pollution for Brain Health

This episode of Defy Dementia focuses on outdoor and indoor air pollution and its impact on brain health. First, we speak to Dr. Mark Weisskopf (Harvard University) about outdoor pollution, such as wildfire smoke, and how it may increase your dementia risk. Then, we meet Shiven Taneja, a Mississauga teen who builds do-it-yourself (DIY) air purifiers at a low cost for vulnerable community members. Finally, Dr. Tara Kahan (University of Saskatchewan) discusses ways to reduce your exposure to indoor sources of pollution, such as cooking and candle fumes. Tune in today for practical tips on lowering your indoor and outdoor pollution exposure, and decrease your dementia risk!


Key takeaways

  1. Exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution can impact your brain and increase your dementia risk.
  2. To reduce your exposure to outdoor air pollution, wear a mask, avoid highly polluted areas, and stay indoors when the air quality is poor.
  3. To reduce your exposure to indoor air pollution, properly ventilate your stovetop and oven, use air purifiers (you can even build your own!), and open your windows when the air quality is good outside.

Key highlights

Jay: “The idea that air pollution may be a risk factor for poor brain health is relatively new. That idea gained new prominence in 2020 when scientists writing in the prestigious U.K. medical journal The Lancet added air pollution to their list of risk factors for dementia.”
Dr. Weisskopf: “Just the fact that there are effects of these air pollutants on the brain is something people should be aware of in order to try and not only on a personal level do what you can to avoid excess exposure, but also to help work at a higher-level policy government level to try and limit the levels of these things in the air.”
Shiven: “In the end, [a DIY air purifier] sometimes ends up becoming even more effective than a HEPA filter.”
Dr. Kahan: “There's a big disconnect between what we think of as clean and fresh [air] and what's actually good for us. You're probably better off without [scent diffusers, candles, etc.]. There are so many ways that we can reduce this exposure.”
Dr. Sekuler: “I think it's important to recognize that there are some easy things that you can do to take action to protect the air quality around you yourself, whether it's wearing masks or building these Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, checking the air quality outside... But it's also critical for people to understand that the risk is relatively low and it's really a societal problem.”



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Studies on air pollution and dementia risk:
Check the air quality in your area:
How to build your own air purifier:

Learn more about our guests

Dr. Marc G. Weisskopf, Ph.D., Sc.D., is the Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Physiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the departments of Environmental Health and Epidemiology and Director of the Harvard TH Chan NIEHS Center for Environmental Health. Dr. Weisskopf received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco, and his Sc.D. in Epidemiology from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His work focuses on the influence of environmental exposures on brain health across the life course and epidemiological methods to improve causal inference from observational environmental health studies.
Shiven Taneja is a grade 11 student at Mentor College in Mississauga. He is an avid athlete who plays competitive squash and is part of his school’s badminton and cross-country teams. Shiven is also an aspiring engineer. He loves tinkering with 3D printing techniques and is a passionate member of an Oakville-based FIRST Robotics team. In addition, Shiven is an engaged community member who has served on the RCMP National Youth Advisory Committee. He currently volunteers as a Frontline member of Credit Valley Conservation Youth Corps. In his spare time, he builds DIY air filter devices at cost for vulnerable community members. 
Dr. Tara Kahan is a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Analytical Chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan. She obtained a B.Sc. degree from the University of Regina and a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (working with Dr. Jamie Donaldson). Dr. Kahan completed postdoctoral fellowships with Dr. John Hemminger (University of California Irvine) and Dr. Veronica Vaida (University of Colorado Boulder). Her major research areas are atmospheric chemistry in water and ice, and indoor chemistry.