New Delhi: As the air around Delhi-NCR begins to deteriorate ahead of Diwali, health experts on Monday warned that the pollutants in the air may cause inflammation in the brain that can lead to anxiety, depression, and memory issues.
Ahead of the World Mental Health Day which falls on October 10, doctors emphasised that pollution in any form is damaging to human well-being.
Dr Nand Kumar, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), told IANS that apart from air pollution, “environment changes marked by frequent and extreme weather events such as floods and storms affects mental health”.
“People exposed to such climate changes may develop more serious mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or substance use disorders,” he emphasised.
Air pollution is shortening lives in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the most polluted city in the world, by 11.9 years, according to a new study.
As per the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report for 2023 by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, India is the world’s second most polluted country and Delhi is the most polluted city in the world.
The findings based on PM2.5 data for 2021 derived from satellites showed that pollution in India has increased from 56.2 micrograms per cubic metre air in 2020 to 58.7 micrograms per cubic metre air in 2021. This exceeds the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline of 5 micrograms per cubic metre air by more than 10 times.
Air pollution, a global issue that affects the health of millions of people globally, has long been associated with a range of physical health issues, from respiratory illnesses to cardiovascular diseases, however, the impact of air pollution on mental health is a less explored but equally significant concern.
A study released in March by Harvard University researchers adds to the evidence linking air pollution (small particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen oxide, and nitrogen dioxide) to an increased risk of dementia. Several earlier studies have linked air pollution to increased stress, psychological distress, an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.
Dr Vipul Rastogi, Senior Consultant Neuropsychiatrist at Medanta Hospital, told IANS: “We have come across people who have had to leave their fulfilling jobs and Delhi/NCR because of breathing problems that their children have. This causes a lot of discontentment in people as their lives are turned upside down.”
The latest data from the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) showed that the air quality in the national capital is now in the “poor” quality zone, and days ahead are worrisome.
According to Dr Mrinmay Kumar Das, Senior Consultant, Department of Behavioural Sciences, Jaypee Hospital, “long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to neuroinflammation, which can affect the brain’s functioning and has been associated with cognitive decline and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases”.
He mentioned that the high levels of air pollution can cause psychological stress which can lead to anxiety and depression over time. To deal with this, health experts suggested that maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, regular exercise, and stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness or yoga, can help support mental resilience.
As explained by Divya Mohindroo, a counselling psychologist, air pollution decreases happiness and life satisfaction, and increases annoyance, anxiety, mental disorders, self-harm, and suicide.
Air pollution impacts cognitive functioning and decision-making in the long run. It also affects work productivity and socially, may lead to criminal activities and worsened public behaviour.
“Take care of your diet and nutrition, move your body, hydrate yourself well and monitor your sleep,” Mohindroo told IANS.
Those who face existential anxiety as an effect of air pollution, she suggested “meditating” in such a case will be helpful.