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A Comparison of PM 2.5 Exposure Estimates from Different Estimation Methods and their Associations with Cognitive Testing and Brain MRI Outcomes.

BACKGROUND: Reported associations between particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter < 2.5μm (PM2.5 ) and cognitive outcomes remain mixed. Differences in exposure estimation method may contribute to this heterogeneity.

OBJECTIVES: To assess agreement between PM2.5 exposure concentrations across 11 exposure estimation methods and to compare resulting associations between PM2.5 and cognitive or MRI outcomes.

METHODS: We used Visit 5 (2011-2013) cognitive testing and brain MRI data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study. We derived address-linked average 2000-2007 PM2.5 exposure concentrations in areas immediately surrounding the four ARIC recruitment sites (Forsyth County, NC; Jackson, MS; suburbs of Minneapolis, MN; Washington County, MD) using 11 estimation methods. We assessed agreement between method-specific PM2.5 concentrations using descriptive statistics and plots, overall and by site. We used adjusted linear regression to estimate associations of method-specific PM2.5 exposure estimates with cognitive scores (n=4,678) and MRI outcomes (n=1,518) stratified by study site and combined site-specific estimates using meta-analyses to derive overall estimates. We explored the potential impact of unmeasured confounding by spatially patterned factors.

RESULTS: Exposure estimates from most methods had high agreement across sites, but low agreement within sites. Within-site exposure variation was limited for some methods. Consistently null findings for the PM2.5 -cognitive outcome associations regardless of method precluded empirical conclusions about the potential impact of method on study findings in contexts where positive associations are observed. Not accounting for study site led to consistent, adverse associations, regardless of exposure estimation method, suggesting the potential for substantial bias due to residual confounding by spatially patterned factors.

DISCUSSION: PM2.5 estimation methods agreed across sites but not within sites. Choice of estimation method may impact findings when participants are concentrated in small geographic areas. Understanding unmeasured confounding by factors that are spatially patterned may be particularly important in studies of air pollution and cognitive or brain health.

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