How Climate Change Affects Cognitive Function

Climate change is a global crisis that has far-reaching implications for the environment, ecosystems, and human health. While discussions often revolve around the physical and environmental effects of climate change, one lesser-known risk is the potential impact on our cognitive function. In this article, we’ll delve into the intricate relationship between the health of our climate and how it affects our cognitive abilities.

How much of a risk is climate change for cognition?

The human brain is a remarkable organ, but it’s not impervious to environmental factors. Research suggests that changes in climate can have a profound impact on cognitive function. Here’s how:

Rising Temperatures

Rising temperatures, a hallmark of climate change, can lead to cognitive impairment. Studies have linked extreme heat to decreased cognitive performance among varying age groups – the effects of heat waves have been studied in older adults and young adults alike. Heatwaves can lead to sleep disturbances, increased stress, and reduced attention spans, all of which can have a domino effect on our cognitive health. Decreased sleep can lead to deficits in executive function and attention skills. Stress can impact social cognition skills such as emotion regulation and executive function skills such as decision-making. 

When your body is working hard to regulate its temperature, there is less energy available for cognitive tasks.

Air Quality

Air pollution, exacerbated by factors such as increased wildfires and industrial emissions, can impair cognitive function. Fine particulate matter can enter the bloodstream and reach the brain, potentially causing inflammation and oxidative stress. Long-term exposure to poor air quality has been associated with cognitive decline, particularly in older adults.

Mental Health and Climate Anxiety

The mental health consequences of climate change, often referred to as “climate anxiety,” can indirectly impact cognitive function. Constant worry about environmental disasters, loss of biodiversity, and the future can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. These conditions can impair cognitive functions such as memory, decision-making, and problem-solving abilities.

Vulnerable Populations

It’s crucial to note that the impact of climate change on cognitive function is not uniform. Vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions, are more susceptible to these effects. Children’s developing brains may be particularly sensitive to the cognitive deficits associated with air pollution, and the elderly may experience accelerated cognitive decline when exposed to extreme heat.

How can we protect cognition?

While the relationship between climate change and cognitive function is concerning, there are steps individuals and communities can take to mitigate these effects. For example, taking proper precautions during wildfires or heat waves by staying indoors, and encouraging loved ones to do the same, may help to protect cognitive health.

Increasing awareness about the mental health impacts of climate change can also be helpful within communities. Encouraging open conversations about climate anxiety and offering support can help individuals better cope with stress and anxiety.

On a larger scale, reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains the most effective way to combat climate change and its adverse effects on cognitive function. Support for clean energy, sustainable transportation, and conservation efforts can collectively contribute to a healthier climate. 

Small changes you can make within your daily life and community are so much more important than many of us realize. Within our communities and the world overall, we must all change our mindsets surrounding what we’re capable of and how much change we can make. As much as the climate change crisis is a physical reality, it is also a crisis of inability to take action.


The connection between climate health and cognitive function is a sobering reminder that our actions or lack of actions can have far-reaching consequences. Climate change poses not only physical but also cognitive and mental health challenges that we can address collectively. By acknowledging this connection and taking steps to protect our environment, we can safeguard our cognitive health and create a healthier future for generations to come.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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