Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. The effects of climate change on exposed biological species, as well as on vulnerable societies, are of concern to the entire scientific community. Rising temperatures, heat waves, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, fires, forest loss, and the disappearance of glaciers, rivers, and deserts can directly and indirectly cause human pathology as well as human life, both physical and psychological. However, there is a clear lack of psychiatric studies on climate change-related mental disorders. As of the last knowledge update in January 2022, research is ongoing on the potential effects of climate change on cognitive function and mental health. Although the relationship between climate change and brain function is a complex and emerging field, some studies suggest that there may be connections. In a paper published today in Nature Climate Change, they explore how research has shown that a changing environment affects how our brains work, and how climate change could affect our brain function in the future.
Here are some potential ways in which climate change could impact brain function and mental health,
1. Heat Stress and Cognitive Performance
High temperatures associated with climate change can lead to heat stress, which may affect cognitive performance. Studies have shown that exposure to extreme heat can impair decision-making and reduce cognitive abilities. Human performance is influenced by a wide range of environmental factors in work settings. Heat stress is one of these factors that can impair operator performance. Human performance declines over time by focusing on tedious work in hot weather. Heat stress may cause some changes in the operator’s cognitive performance due to lack of comfort, cognitive fatigue, interruptions, unconsciousness, etc.
2. Air Pollution and Neurological Effects
Climate change can contribute to increased air pollution, which has been linked to various neurological effects. Fine particulate matter and pollutants may have negative impacts on cognitive function and mental health. Over the past decades, the adverse effects of air pollution on the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems have been well-established in a series of major epidemiological and observational studies. Mechanistically, air pollution can affect the nervous system through a variety of cellular, molecular, and inflammatory mechanisms. Pathways that directly damage brain structures or predispose to neurological diseases
3. Extreme Weather Events and Mental Health
The increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events associated with climate change such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires can have profound effects on mental health. Trauma, displacement, and loss associated with these events can contribute to mental health challenges. Decades of research highlight immediate and long-term mental health challenges caused by rising temperatures and climate extremes, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicide, aggression, and gender-based violence. High temperatures, e.g., during heat waves, are associated with mood and behavioral disorders, including increases in aggressive behavior and crime. Links have been found between high temperatures and increased suicide risk, with extreme temperatures affecting mood, worsening behavioral disorders, increasing the risk of suicide, and affecting the well-being of those with mental health problems. The difficulty associated with ongoing or anticipated climate and environmental change causes climate anxiety.
4. Food Insecurity and Nutritional Impact
Changes in climate patterns can affect food production and lead to food insecurity. Poor nutrition resulting from food shortages can impact brain development and cognitive function, especially in vulnerable populations like children. Climate change is projected to negatively impact the four pillars of food security—availability, access, utilization, and stability—and their interactions. Meeting global food security needs remains a challenge, as demand for food and protein increases faster than population growth. Global food insecurity is already increasing due to climate phenomena. Global warming is affecting weather patterns, leading to heat waves, heavy rains, and droughts. Rising food commodity prices in 2021 will be a major factor in pushing nearly 30 million additional people toward food insecurity in low-income countries.
5. Vector-Borne Diseases and Cognitive Impacts
The spread of diseases carried by vectors (such as mosquitoes and ticks) can increase with changing climate patterns. Some of these diseases, like Lyme disease or certain encephalitis viruses, can have neurological effects. As climate change alters temperature and weather patterns around the world, the risk of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and the Zika virus will increase. Climate change is improving climate and environmental conditions for the spread of many diseases. This may also lead to an increase in the duration of disease transmission seasons. Increased temperatures alter the biting behavior of mosquitoes, reducing the effectiveness of barriers such as bed nets.
6. Increased Stress and Anxiety
The awareness and concern about climate change, coupled with the potential for more frequent and severe environmental disasters, can contribute to increased stress and anxiety levels. Mental health impacts may result from the anticipation and aftermath of such events. The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and droughts can lead to widespread destruction, displacement, and loss. Individuals directly affected by these events often experience heightened stress and anxiety due to the immediate threats to their safety and the uncertainty about the future.
Because the interactions between climate change and mental health are multifaceted and influenced by various factors, including socioeconomic status, geographic location, and individual resilience, it is essential to approach this topic with caution. Research is ongoing in this area and scientists are working to better understand specific mechanisms and relationships. We have already reached difficult times. But taking action in this regard in the near future is not only the priority of governments but also the responsibility of every citizen. When this earth is the only habitable place for man, where can he go? If action is not taken on this as soon as possible, man will surely have no survival.