The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and funded by HDR UK, examined data from nearly 3,000 individuals born in Scotland in 1936 over a 75-year period. While earlier studies have explored the effects of air pollution on human health, there is limited research that extends beyond the 25-year mark.

Researchers estimated historic air pollution levels based on atmospheric chemistry models, matched with participants’ addresses when they were three years old, and analysed national death records spanning from 1947 to 2022. Those exposed to high levels of air pollution at the age of three were found to have an increased likelihood of dying between the ages of 65 and 86, by up to 5%.

Breathing in polluted air during early childhood was also found to increase the likelihood of cancer-related death, with the risk of dying from lung cancer increased by 11% among women. Additionally, preliminary findings suggest that in men, early-life air pollution exposure might be associated with an increased risk of dying from neurodegenerative disorders in their later years.

The study also incorporated data from a national cognitive ability test taken at age 11, which revealed that children exposed to higher levels of air pollution tended to score lower. The skills assessed in the test are important for educational achievement and the potential for achieving higher socioeconomic status, both factors associated with living longer. The findings suggest that 25% of the total impact of air pollution on death was an indirect result of effects on participants’ cognitive ability.

Lead author Dr Gergő Baranyi, School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“It is striking to see that children growing up in polluted areas can have consequences that persist throughout their entire life. These findings suggest that the effects of air pollution on our health can endure for decades, even after significant efforts are made to reduce pollution levels.”

While this study is based on a Scottish population, it emphasises the global implications of air pollution, especially in low- and middle-income countries where pollution levels are rising. There is a clear need for continued efforts to improve air quality and further investigate the long-term health impact of environmental factors, to support healthy ageing in the future.

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