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Exposure to air pollution may speed up the aging process, study finds

Experts say higher levels of free radicals can affect our cells and DNA

Photo (c) Dirk Meister - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from West Virginia University found another way that air pollution can impact consumers’ health and wellness

The findings showed that exposure to air pollution brings more free radicals -- which are found in cigarettes, industrial chemicals, and other sources -- into our bodies. Over time, the researchers say this can impact the body’s aging process. The study was conducted on mice, and the researchers learned that consistent exposure to air pollution prematurely aged the cells in the subjects’ bodies. 

“By the time the genetically-modified mouse is 5 months old, it’s like a 2-year-old mouse,” said researcher Eric E. Kelley. “It has all the symptoms and physical characteristics. It has hearing loss, osteoporosis, renal dysfunction, visual impairment, hypertension, as well as other age-related issues. It’s prematurely aged just because it has lost its ability to repair its DNA.” 

Long-term effects on aging

For the study, the researchers genetically engineered mice without an essential protein that’s needed for cellular repair. The idea was that this process would mimic what happened to humans that had high levels of exposure to air pollution; when the body becomes inundated with free radicals and is unable to clean them out, there is long-term damage to our cells and DNA. 

The researchers tracked the mice’s health outcomes throughout their lives and then compared the results with wild mice that hadn’t been genetically modified. The team explained that the aging process was significantly different when the mice weren’t able to repair cellular damage. 

The study showed that the genetically modified mice were healthy for some time; however, as they got older, the aging process intensified. They exhibited poorer immune systems and weaker kidney and liver function. While this is typical during older age, it occurred in the genetically engineered group long before the wild mice were exhibiting the same signs. 

It’s also important to note that as the body ages, the ability to fight against the damage done by free radicals lessens over time. This means that as the body experiences premature aging, it's less likely to overcome health challenges. 

Preventing premature aging

The researchers explained that a certain amount of air pollution exposure is inevitable, but consumers can lower their risk of premature aging by following specific behaviors and habits.

Drinking alcohol, being around chemicals and pesticides, and smoking cigarettes all contribute to pollution exposure. Avoiding these behaviors can lower air pollution exposure and prevent the additional production of free radicals, both of which can have long-term health benefits. Consumers can also follow traditionally healthy diets and exercise regularly to boost their chances of having a healthy aging process. 

“The impact is less on lifespan and more on health span,” Kelley explained. 

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