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At first, USC’s large, interdisciplinary series of studies into air pollution and brain health seemed outside the wheelhouse of USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology postdoc Jennifer Ailshire, a sociologist and demographer.

After leading researcher Caleb E. Finch tapped her to contribute to the massive project, however, she found an unexpected and extremely valuable niche. By conducting the first study to show how exposure to air pollution influences cognitive function in a national sample of older men and women, Ailshire found that living in areas of high air pollution is indeed an environmental risk to seniors’ brain health.

“The Ailshire study shows the unexpectedly adverse effects of air pollutants on brain function in US elderly,” said Finch, a University Professor and holder of the ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Chair in the Neurobiology of Aging at the USC Leonard Davis School. “Her multidisciplinary approach is a model for analyzing the complex interactions of location and outcomes of aging.”

“This is a new area of research for me, so having a group of scholars with such diversity of expertise to learn from has been tremendously helpful,” Ailshire said. “I credit Dr. Finch for his vision in creating such a vibrant and diverse community of scholars organized around an issue that is of great interest not only to researchers but also to policy makers and the public.”

Along with additional papers on longevity factors and financial health, Ailshire presented her findings at a poster session at the 65th annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in San Diego, noting that her findings are especially pertinent to Southern California.

“I hope this research draws more attention to the adverse effects of air pollution on population health, and particularly the health of older adults,” she said. “This issue is especially relevant for the Los Angeles area where pollution levels are so high, far above national levels and EPA standards, and the population of older adults is growing so rapidly.”

Besides providing a valuable public health service, Ailshire’s study also highlights how gerontological research encompasses many fields and impacts every living—and therefore aging—person.

“Jennifer is very wise to have broadened her scope and to draw on the multidisciplinary resources here at USC,” said Eileen Crimmins, the USC Leonard Davis School AARP Chair holder and Ailshire’s preceptor. “What she has found has important implications for all of us.”

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