One in three people born in the UK this year will develop dementia in their lifetime. The prospect of dementia can be frightening to us all, but the good news is that we can help reduce the risk and protect our brain health by improving air quality, according to Dr Susan Mitchell from Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Dementia – including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia – affects over a million people in the UK. New evidence of the link between brain health and air pollution has highlighted the importance of the quality of the air we breathe.

Up to 40 per cent of dementia cases could be prevented, if 12 health and lifestyle risk factors could be eliminated entirely,” says Dr Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Dr Susan Mitchell
Dr Susan Mitchell (Dr Susan Mitchell )

There are health and lifestyle factors you can change to help limit the factors that cause dementia – like alcohol consumption and exercise – but one thing people can't avoid is the air they breathe, and the impact poor air quality has. 

"At the moment, there are no treatments available in the UK that can stop or slow the progression of the diseases that cause dementia… so everything we can do to reduce our risk is really, really important."

And it's important to realise this relates to exposure over a lifetime – which is why scientists talk about brain health rather than dementia risk: "While dementia happens in late life, that risk is across your whole life. It’s never too early or too late to look after your brain health,” Dr Mitchell adds.

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Establishing the link between air pollution and brain health

In a report published by medical journal The Lancet in 2020, scientists listed air pollution as a risk factor for dementia for the first time. The report recommended moves designed to improve air quality should be accelerated, particularly in areas with high air pollution.

Last year, a review by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants found it was likely that air pollution contributes to a decline in mental ability and dementia in older people, most likely through its effect on the circulation system.

Signs indicating Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) on a street in London, UK.
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Expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone to help improve air quality

The Ultra Low Emission Zone has made a significant impact so far, helping to reduce harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution by nearly half in central London, which has won the support of Alzheimer’s Research UK. But there’s still more to be done. Expanding ULEZ across to cover Greater London will help give the five million Londoners in outer boroughs clearer air to breathe too.

"We recognise that air pollution is not something that individuals can change by themselves. It is so important to see action taken on a wider scale, championed by those who can lead societal change. In fact, Alzheimer’s Research UK is part of the Healthy Air Campaign, a coalition of charities seeking to improve air quality across the nation.”

“We support the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone in London. It’s really encouraging to see energy and ambition at a city level to reduce air pollution and therefore help reduce the risk of developing dementia,” .

What is the ULEZ?

From August 29, 2023, the Ultra Low Emission Zone will be expanded to create one single zone across all London boroughs, to help clear London’s air and improve health.

More than four out of five vehicles in outer London already meet the emissions standards. 94 per cent of vehicles seen in the existing ULEZ meet the emissions standards and do not pay the ULEZ daily charge.

If you drive a petrol vehicle over 16 years old or a diesel vehicle over 6 years old, you need to check if you’re affected. The easiest way to check is to use TfL’s simple vehicle checker

Some disabled drivers and vehicle types may also qualify for a grace period (temporary exemption) from the ULEZ.

For more information on the ULEZ expansion, including an interactive map to check your postcode and support offers such as discounts on car clubs and bikes, click here.