While I enjoy playing chess as an amateur pastime, at a high level it is an intellectually demanding game, requiring fierce concentration, and I’m in awe of those players who are able to think so many steps ahead.
Yet these super-brains are at risk from the kind of everyday indoor air pollution we’re all exposed to, a shocking new study has found, with even modest levels of pollution having a significant effect.
Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands tracked the performance of 121 leading chess players across three tournaments, where they also had data about temperature, levels of carbon dioxide and PM2.5 concentration.
PM — or particulate matter — is made up of tiny particles that come mainly from burning fossils fuels (cars and buses are a source, but also gas stoves and wood-burners).
The 2.5 relates to the particle size, so these have diameters 2.5 micrometres or smaller (a human hair is about 70 micrometres).
Cooking with gas and gas boilers produces particulate matter
What makes them dangerous is that they can penetrate deep into our lungs, then travel through our blood to organs such as the heart and the brain.
The Dutch study showed that temperature and carbon dioxide levels didn’t make any difference to the chess players, but the higher the levels of PM2.5 in the air where they were playing, the worse their decision-making was, particularly when under time pressure.
If tiny particles of polluted air are having a big effect on the brains of chess players, what are they doing to the rest of us?
We’ve known for some time about the dangers to our health from breathing polluted air on the streets, mainly from traffic.
Outdoor air pollution kills at least 35,000 people every year in the UK, with most of those deaths caused by inhaling PM2.5s.
A few years ago I was shocked to discover, while doing a small experiment in London which involved wearing an air pollution monitor, just how many particles I was breathing in: the highest levels I recorded were when I was stuck in traffic in a taxi, surrounded by cars belching out their fumes.
As well as damaging our hearts, lungs and brains (it’s been linked to cognitive decline and dementia), inhaling polluted air affects our mood.
In a study published earlier this month in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, based on the health records of nearly 400,000 Brits, people who were exposed to the least amount of air pollution were found to have the lowest levels of depression and anxiety.
The theory is that air pollution causes inflammation in the brain, and that, in turn, can trigger mental illnesses — with men more vulnerable to the effects of inhaling these tiny air particles than women (it’s not clear why).
There has been a lot of research — and concern — about the quality of the air outdoors. But it’s increasingly clear that we’re also suffering the impact of the poor quality air in our homes.
As Nature, the world’s leading science journal, recently pointed out, indoor air pollution kills 3.2 million people a year worldwide, which is almost as many as the 3.5 million killed by outdoor air pollution.
A common source of PM2.5s in our homes is wood-burning stoves. It was reported earlier this week that emissions from domestic wood burning have increased by 124 per cent over the last decade, which environmental groups have described as a ‘worrying trend’.
Cooking with gas and gas boilers produces PM2.5s, too.
Our houses are also filled with lots of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) that are released by paints, carpets and household products (such as air fresheners) and which can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and in some cases cause nausea.
Meanwhile, building materials, fabrics and furniture give off chemicals that can irritate our lungs and make asthma worse. So what can you do to reduce levels of air pollution at home?
- Make sure your house is well ventilated. It is particularly important when you are cooking with gas to turn on the overhead extractor fan, if you have one. Overall it is healthier to bake than to fry.
- Reconsider getting an indoor wood-burning fire. They’re not as bad as open fires, but they still produce more small particle pollution than all the road traffic in the UK combined.
- Avoid using synthetic air fresheners and scented candles as these release lots of VOCs. If you want something that smells nice, try using dispensers that release essential oils, such as jasmine or lavender.
- Switch to solid or liquid cleaning products because they don’t release as many particles as sprays. And, if it’s practical, try replacing artificial sprays and cleaning products with more traditional products such as diluted vinegar or bicarbonate of soda.
- If you have damp rooms, invest in a dehumidifier. They are cheap to run and are one of the best ways to control mould, which can be harmful for your lungs.
- Buy more house plants. They will boost your mood, freshen the air and filter out some of the air pollutants. Good ones to go for include snake plant (also known as mother-in-law’s tongue), spider plant, ivy, peace lily and rosemary.
- Cut back on carpets. They not only release a lot of VOCs but trap lots of dust and dog hairs — not strictly pollutants but they can irritate the throat and cause sneezing.
Men just don’t feel the urgency to tidy up
Studies show that women spend, on average, twice as much time doing household chores such as cooking, cleaning and putting things away
One of the few things my wife Clare and I often argue about is mess — in particular, the fact that I leave a lot of things scattered around our house; things which I plan to clear up later, but which I often don’t.
This irritates Clare — and, of course, when I then look for something, I get annoyed because she’s put it away and I can’t find it.
Boost your happiness
It really doesn’t take much to make a difference.
A new study by the University of Kansas has shown that contacting a friend just once a day, to catch up, joke around or tell them you’re thinking of them, can almost immediately increase your own happiness, and theirs, as well as lowering your stress levels.
And it doesn’t have to be the same friend or a deep, meaningful conversation: the act of reaching out is what matters, reported the journal Communication Research.
This is typical of many households. Studies show that women spend, on average, twice as much time doing household chores such as cooking, cleaning and putting things away.
So is it just that men don’t see the mess? In fact, there’s no difference between the sexes when it comes to this, according to a study in 2019 by the University of Melbourne.
The researchers asked men and women to look at photos and judge if the rooms were messy, and their conclusions were the same.
Instead, it seems that men see the mess, but don’t feel the same obligation to do anything about it.
In a recent paper, philosophers at Oxford University suggested that this is because men and women are brought up to see the same situation in different ways. So while I see a crumb-covered countertop that can be left until later, Clare sees a surface that needs to be wiped now.
The good news, at least for women, is that men can learn to do something about it.
These days I clear the table before leaving the room, though I’m still working on not leaving Clare to do all the laundry…
As the Mail has reported, a number of TV personalities such as Johnny Vegas and Sue Perkins, have recently announced they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
This provoked scepticism from some commentators, not least because there are no blood tests or brain scans for a definitive diagnosis. Instead, we rely on people’s responses to questionnaires.
That could change. Research by Aarhus University in Denmark, published in the journal Nature Genetics, has found 27 genetic differences between people with ADHD and those who don’t have it.
Many of these genes are in areas of the brain involved with the release of dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ hormone that plays a key role in the way our brains respond to our environment — current ADHD medicines typically work by increasing the concentration of dopamine.
A genetic test is still a long way off, but this research certainly suggests that ADHD isn’t a fad, but a neurological condition that needs to be taken seriously.