By Stuti Chakraborty
President Joe Biden’s move to sign an executive order directing the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change as an initial decision marking the inception of his governance has been met with much applause in recent news. This decision might be a timely occurrence in propelling speedy action towards limiting global warming levels, primarily driven by industries, as the entire world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, while also acclimatizing to the dilapidating effects of climate change on planetary health.
But how do these major governmental decisions, global changes, treaties and policies impact all of us at an individual level? What do they have anything to do with our day-to-day lives? The answer is quite simple. As individuals, all our actions and behaviors, how much ever small or insignificant they might seem, play a pivotal role in determining the future of life on our planet. Superimposed, the actions of today, can have an impact on our tomorrow, and we are already starting to see some of these bearings across all major aspects of our life, including our health.
Planetary health, gender and the brain:
Our thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions and behaviors are largely governed by underlying biological and neural networks, regulated by our brain. When speaking of human health and well-being, adequate functionality of the brain is considered to be one of the most imperative factors for survival. Recent studies have outlined a ‘dysbiotic shift’ due to increased distress across a planetary scale, which in turn is being reflected through outcomes of personal biological stress and has implications such as disorders in brain development, increased mental health crises as well as complicated aging. In addition, the brunt of global environmental health outcomes have been found to be gendered, impacting women, children and other underrepresented genders much more – thereby further widening the gap towards the realisation of Universal Health Coverage (UHC).
Image source: GRIST (https://grist.org/article/why-your-brain-doesnt-register-the-words-
What does science say?
Research has shown that increased levels of exposure to air pollution, especially among women, has been associated with cognitive impairment, poor cognitive abilities, faster cognitive decline among the elderly and delayed cognitive developments. The pathway through which this occurs essentially begins via the nasal olfactory channel or indirectly through blood circulation in our body. This in turn causes inflammation by activating the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) axis (responsible for stimulating feedback inhibition loops and involved in the pathology of disorders such as anxiety or depression). Systematic reviews of multiple studies have also accounted for the vulnerability of certain communities of people including post-partum or pregnant women, women of low socioeconomic status, the elderly as well as refugees and migrants to the mental health impacts of climate change due to deforestation, increasing sea levels, wildfires etc.
Other most commonly linked diseases to poor environmental health that are being closely looked at are Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Recent literature reiterates an increased risk of memory loss and presentation of Alzheimer’s-like shrinkage of the brain among women living in areas with higher levels of PM2.5 (particulate matter generated by power plants, cars etc.)
A clear link has been established between Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - a neurological autoimmune disease of increasing global prevalence in which the myelin, a protective substance coating the brain and spinal cord gets destroyed by the body’s own immune system – and rising temperatures (heat sensitivity) among those diagnosed with MS. This is another disease which impacts women almost four times more than men, the basis of which could be linked to factors such as female hormones. Worsening effects of climate change could mean hotter days around the globe, aggravating conditions for people having the disease.
Apart from air pollution, other major determinants of women’s health and health in general, such as water quality and food security, are directly influenced by climate change, and have been investigated to have adverse effects on the brain, especially in low resource settings.
Advancements are being made towards driving forward the dialogue on climate change, planetary health and gender disparity among medical specialties such as Neurology and Psychiatry. However, there is still a long way to go for adequate integration of these imperative aspects in treatment planning and navigation. Including a planetary health lens can improve the implementation of healthcare policy across the globe, while enhancing the overall management of neurological disorders. These priorities must be on the minds of the young medical students,– the leaders of tomorrow!
About the Author: Stuti Chakraborty is currently working at Christian Medical College, Vellore and a mentee at the Women Leaders for Planetary Health (class 2020). She is a country representative for Healthcare Information for All; part of the SDG 3 as well as Science Policy working group for the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth; a country correspondent for YourCommonwealth and country correspondent for IHP Global. She has also been a pioneer member for the launch of the India Chapter of Women in Global Health. She was a youth speaker from India to shed light on the topic of ‘Gender Equity in the Healthcare Sector’ for the GHWN Youth Hub Online Conference. Stuti has represented her country across several platforms including being a youth representative from the UN MGCY at the Global Conference on Primary Healthcare held in Astana in 2018. Through her work, she advocates for young people's health with a special focus on the rights of Persons with Disabilities. She is an advisory board member for a research project with Greener Things, an organisation working towards outlining the psychological tenets for transitioning into sustainable cities and is also studying the impacts of climate change on various neurodegenerative diseases.