John on a mobility scooter

Health effects of air pollution

Air pollution and older people

In inner cities everyone is exposed to air pollution – but the health of some, including older people, is more affected than others.

What we've learned

  • Older people are disproportionately affected by air pollution with spikes in particulate matter associated with increased strokes and hospitalisation.
  • Exposure to air pollution has also been associated with cognitive decline in older people.
  • Levels of PM2.5 for the entire boroughs are above the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, and 16% (11) of care homes in our inner-city areas of Lambeth and Southwark are in areas with a level of PM2.5 that are 40% higher than the WHO recommends.
  • Older people are least likely to select the environment and air quality as an important issue facing our area compared with other groups.

Views on air pollution


people aged 65 or over live in Lambeth and Southwark (8.3% of the total)


but only 9% of older people see the environment as a priority concern

Care homes

Around 53,000 people aged 65 and over live in our inner-city boroughs, with a higher concentration in the south. To understand exposure we need to learn more about where older people spend their time and how polluted those environments are.

While more work is needed, we investigated where some older people spend some of their time: local care homes.

The entire footprint of our boroughs exceeds the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for air pollutants PM2.5 and PM10. And 11 local care homes (16% of the total) are in areas where PM2.5 levels are 40% higher than the WHO guidelines.

This type of insight helps us understand where we may target our efforts.

Discussions about air pollution understandably tend to focus on the damaging impact on children and young people, but it's less well known that there are real threats to older people too, many of whom are already living with cardiovascular diseases, COPD and other breathing problems.

Caroline Abrahams Charity Director, Age UK


  • Older people are more vulnerable to air pollution partly because they are a group with high levels of long-term conditions occurring at the same time, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
  • Older people, compared to young people, have an increased risk of hospitalisation when there are high levels of particulate matter in the air.
  • Particulate matter is also associated with a higher risk of stroke in older people.
  • Exposure to air pollution is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older people.


How older people experience inner-city air

As part of the groundwork for our programme, we researched air pollution awareness among people living in our inner-city area. Together with partners including Global Action Plan, Opinium and BMG Research we did:

  • On-street interviews with 401 local residents
  • Focus groups, including one consisting of older people
  • A public perception survey of 1,033 local residents

This insight will help us develop more effective projects to address poor air quality and improve the health of local residents – particularly the vulnerable groups who are the focus of our programme.

I don't see how I can get hay fever in December when there's hardly any pollen around and I've put it down to pollution... there must be something in the air.

Participant in older people focus group


Less likely to see air quality as a key issue

Older people (all groups over 65) were less likely to select the environment and air quality as an important issue facing Lambeth and Southwark, compared with younger people (18-24).

Air pollution is not the biggest concern

Safety is the biggest concern of people aged 55 or over – a view shared with parents of young children. Crime, anti-social behaviour and the nuisance caused by heavy traffic are all more likely to be an issue than air pollution.

Looking to government for solutions

Older people (as well as businesses we surveyed) in particular feel the government is solely responsible for improving air quality.

Less support for further measures

However, among those aged 75 and over, only 55% support further measures to improve air pollution.

We don't notice it – we can't see it. If pollution was like snowflakes, then we'd be worried.

John, 72