Children exposed to traffic and other noise in their neighborhoods may be at higher risk for anxiety, researchers conclude, while air pollution could raise risks for other mental health woes.

“Childhood and adolescent noise pollution exposure could increase anxiety by increasing stress and disrupting sleep,” wrote a team led by Joanne Newbury, of Bristol Medical School in Bristol, U.K.

The findings were published May 28 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

In the study, Newbury’s team looked at data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which tracked the health of children born in England between 1991 and 1993.

A total of 9,065 supplied data on their mental health into adulthood. About 1 in every 5 reported some history of psychosis, 11.4% reported depression and 9.7% reported anxiety.

The researchers said that kids who’d been exposed to “noise pollution” in their neighborhoods during childhood and/or adolescence had about a 20% higher odds for anxiety as they grew older.

Neighborhood air pollution was also a risk factor for mental health issues: Children exposed to relatively high levels of particulate matter (tiny bits of pollution entering the lungs) while still in the womb had an 11% higher odds for psychosis, compared to those who didn’t have such exposures, and a 10% rise in depression risk.

The researchers stressed the data couldn’t prove that noise or air pollution help cause mental disorders, only that there’s an association.

Still, there could be solid reasons behind noise’s effect on the developing mind. Besides cutting into children’s much-needed sleep, neighborhood noise “could also impact [a child’s] cognition, which could increase anxiety by impacting concentration during school years,” Newbury’s group theorized.

As for air pollution, toxins breathed in by moms during a pregnancy could affect the “extensive brain development” that is occurring in the fetus and in infancy, the U.K. team said.

“Air pollution exposure could also lead to restricted fetal growth and preterm birth, which are both risk factors for psychopathology,” Newbury’s team added.

If fetal and childhood noise and air pollution do impact mental health trajectories, then minimizing those toxins could have a “potentially enormous” impact, the researchers noted.

In the meantime, “there is now a pressing need for further longitudinal research” into these connections, they said.

More information

Find out more about the impact of pollution on pregnancy at the American Pregnancy Association.

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, May 28, 2024