A Healthy Brain Is Essential For Successful, Healthy Aging: Air Pollution Contributes To The Risk Of Alzheimer’s-Type Disease

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Mon, 10/05/2009 - 14:03.

Over the past four years, since I became involved with the Greater Cleveland Lead Advisory Council, I have been astounded by the lack of concern about childhood lead poisoning among our largely DINK and empty-nested, baby-boomed, sprawled, childhood-lead-poisoned suburbanite sustainabilly Illuminati, who view today's lead poisoning issue as a poor, urban, peeling-paint code enforcement problem of little societal importance, other than proof the poor are pigs. They think old, suburban farts are not harmed by lead poisoning, and lead is not of long-term interest to them.

They are wrong.

For quite some time, honest, informed professionals in the medical community have known cumulative lead exposure throughout life has impacts on later life quality. Looking well past the historic consequences of lead poisoning, like the decline of the Roman Empire and death of Beethoven, medical research is finding direct connections between lead poisoning and increasingly prevalent forms of mental illness in the USA, like Alzheimer’s-Type Disease.

While I don't recall ever seeing the connection of lead poisoning and Alzheimer's in the mainstream media, in Northeast Ohio, we have one of the world's experts on Alzheimer's and healthy aging based in Cleveland - Dr. Peter Whitehouse, of University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University - who, with Shaker Heights' and Oxford's Danny George, are busting The Myth of Alzheimer's. I strongly recommend you subscribe to their updates by email and visit regularly.

Not your usual medical industry wonks, they are blasting apart conventional industrial-society thinking about health and aging to "promote an integrative model of human health and wellness", against the "profession-centered, reductionistic approaches of biomedicine that minimize the influences of cultural, experiential, ecological, and cumulative developmental contexts".

Peter has been briefing me on the connection of lead poisoning and mental illness for some time, and provides a powerful repository of related information at The Myth of Alzheimer's lead category. There, I found "a treasure house of important information" on not just lead poisoning and dementia, but on all Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, through reference to a powerful 2008 book of that title: " Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging". From The Myth of Alzheimer's: “Report Finds Risks of Developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases Can Be Dramatically Reduced”:

We have been very pleased to work with a distinguished group of clinicians and scientists who have produced a new report entitled “Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging” which supports and builds on our views in The Myth of Alzheimer’s. This report, which can be downloaded in its entirety here, offers the most comprehensive review of the currently available research on the lifetime influences of environmental factors on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases that has been published to date.  Danny and I strongly recommend it.

They recommend the book further, at the website distributing it:

Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging is a weighty contribution to our public knowledge of the ecology of human health and disease across the lifespan. Written with concinnity, rigor, and passion, it should inspire and inform needed and urgent conversations about healthcare priorities in America. This report presents a clear warning against the profession-centered, reductionistic approaches of biomedicine that minimize the influences of cultural, experiential, ecological, and cumulative developmental contexts. It is a clarion call to promote an integrative model of human health and wellness.

From the forward, by Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc, Professor & Chairman, Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY - July 2008:

This important book from Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Science and Environmental Health Network presents in clear, balanced, and understandable terms the emerging evidence that toxic environmental exposures, in combination with nutritional, social, and exercise variables, contribute to the causation of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other chronic degenerative diseases of aging. It offers prudent suggestions in light of current knowledge for reducing exposures and building resilience against environmental threats.

This book is a “must read.” While it emphasizes the importance of research to understand the origins of neurodegenerative diseases, it also calls for action. Urgently needed reforms include requiring safety tests for industrial chemicals before marketing; providing incentives to produce and market healthy food rather than products that contribute to chronic diseases; reducing or eliminating emissions that accelerate chronic disease and climate change; and emphasizing disease prevention in healthcare policies. These are essential to confront the public health threats facing the U.S. and many other countries of the world, but they are not enough. Every economic sector, school district, city council, hospital, legislature, community, family, and individual has a role to play. This book is important today, and it will become increasingly important in the years ahead as the number of elderly among us continues to increase.

From the Executive Summary:

This report primarily examines the lifetime influences of environmental factors on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and their underlying pathologic mechanisms. Our close look at the science of these diseases shows they are related to a number of features of modern society and that Alzheimer’s disease especially is linked to other serious health problems of modern times, which we call the “Western disease cluster.”

By environment we mean the entire physical, biological, social, and cultural context in which we live, from conception to death. We take an ecological perspective since individuals do not live in isolation but as members of families, communities, and natural
systems. Our findings show that a complex mixture of variables at each level influences the health of individuals and disease patterns in populations. If we do not confront them comprehensively, we risk overwhelming the health care system and weakening the social and economic fabric of families and communities.

Of particular note to our leadership that considers lead poisoning a poor, urban issue, I'll highlight one other passage:

It is highly likely that for many people, development of the two most common neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, can be delayed or prevented altogether. In most cases these diseases result from the interaction of a number of different factors. They must be understood within a framework that includes biologic, social, economic, and cultural dimensions. These dimensions are represented, in turn, at all levels from the sub-cellular to society as a whole. The presence of certain genes may increase the risks of these diseases, but the actual pathologic processes leading to these conditions can also be highly influenced by environmental factors.

I repeat, "these conditions can also be highly influenced by environmental factors".

We do nothing in Northeast Ohio to minimize or even measure adult lead exposure from paint in old homes, including all those lead-contaminated beautiful old homes in affluent older suburbs around Northeast Ohio, like Shaker Heights, for decades owned by aging residents.

And, we do little to measure and minimize any residents' exposure to lead from industrial emissions, like from the Medical Center Company coal fired steam generation plant, in University Circle, and Mittal Cleveland Works, in Downtown Cleveland. Such exposure may be especially high in nearby hotspots, like may occur at Judson senior care facilities, and Case Western Reserve University, and my back yard, very near the MMCO plant.

As I wrote in "Short-Term Exposure To Fine Particle Air Pollution Can Drive Up High Blood Pressure, Raise Risk Of Heart Attack", it does not appear there is significant, systematic monitoring of pollution near the MMCo plant, now. But EPA modeling of lead contamination at other pollution sources in the region, like the illustration below for Ellwood Engineering Castings, in Hubbard, Ohio, gives some signs of the type of lead fallout that may have occurred around the MMCo plant, over the decades... and may continue today... putting heavy metals and other pollutants in area soil and residents. The inner square below represents a 16 square kilometer monitoring area, with monitors every 50 meters. There are hotspots.

And, in "The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America's Schools" a recent USA Today analysis of toxicity in the air around 125,000 USA schools provides good illustrations of how pollution may be concentrated in specific areas - hot spots - depending on a wide range of factors.

As an important condition defining acceptable quality of life in our communities, consider one rule, from the conclusion of “Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging”: "Chemical trespass, whereby people are exposed to hazardous substances unknowingly or against their will, beginning in the womb and continuing throughout life, should not be tolerated. We should make every effort to prevent exposures, replace toxicants with safer alternatives, and minimize exposures especially to the most vulnerable populations."

If our leaders do not consider this important for our children, perhaps they will consider this important for their own mental health, in their old age.

Read “Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging” and post your thoughts here.

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