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Lead Exposure May Age Brains Faster

Posted by Jane Akre
Wednesday, January 30, 2008 10:57 PM EST
Category: Major Medical, Protecting Your Family
Tags: Toxic Substances

Lead exposure at an early age may age brains faster.


It’s been long suspected that besides genetics, there may be some environmental causes behind the rising numbers of Alzheimer’s cases in the industrialized world. 

Johns Hopkins University is looking at exposure to lead as a factor that may possibly speed up the aging of the brain, even if that lead exposure happened decades earlier.

Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins says "The fact that it's happening with lead is the first proof of principle that it's possible," said Schwartz, a leader in the study of lead's delayed effects. Other pollutants like mercury and pesticides may do the same thing, he said.

Parkinson’s disease has been linked to exposure to pesticide. The mercury link to degenerative brain disease is lacking.

There is nothing new about a delayed adverse reaction to environmental pollutants. Tobacco’s effects may not show up for decades, asbestos can cause lung disease and cancer that manifests decades after exposure.

Dr. Phillip Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine says this is an emerging area for research. The brain may cope for most of your life by drawing on a reserve capacity until it loses more cells through aging and symptoms appear like memory loss or tremors, he says.

Mice exposed to environmental toxins like PCBs show dramatic changes in movement and learning as they age, not in younger years according to EPA research.  And exposure to toxins in the womb might not show up as cancer until they grow up.

Some good news about lead exposure which is measured in the bone. With the phasing out of leaded gasoline beginning in 1976, the average lead drop in the blood of Americans fell 30 percent by 1980 and 80 percent by 1990.

Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Howard Hu of the University of Michigan looked at larger numbers of people and find that what we consider normal aging of the brain might not be so normal, but the result of lead exposure. 

In 2006, 1,000 Baltimore residents ages 50 to 70 who had been exposed to lead before the phase out were studied.

Those who had the higher lifetime lead dose had the poorer performance in mental functions like verbal and visual memory and language. A high exposure was the equivalent of aging the brain by six years. Both Hu and Schwartz theorize that an early life exposure might do the most damage. 

Prevention is the strategy for young people but of concern are the high lead exposures in developing countries without regulations to cap emissions.

"Kids who grew up in the 21st century have a lot less to worry about" than their elders, Hu said.  But "it's hard for me to be totally optimistic the current generation is completely scot-free." #



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