Is lead linked to mental decline?

Submitted by Charles Frost on Mon, 07/28/2008 - 20:55.

Is lead linked to mental decline?

Some experts say long-ago exposure to the toxin adversely affects the brain later in life, but more study is necessary.

Could it be that the "natural" mental decline that afflicts many older people is related to how much lead they absorbed decades before?

That's the provocative idea emerging from some studies, part of a broader area of new research that suggests some pollutants can cause harm that shows up only years after someone is exposed.

The work suggests long-ago lead exposure can make an aging person's brain work as if it's five years older than it really is. If that's verified by more research, it means that sharp cuts in environmental lead levels more than 20 years ago didn't stop its widespread effects.

"We're trying to offer a caution that a portion of what has been called normal aging might in fact be due to ubiquitous environmental exposures like lead," says Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University.

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

In fact, some recent research does suggest that being exposed to pesticides raises the risk of getting Parkinson's disease a decade or more later. Experts say such studies in mercury are lacking.

The notion of long-delayed effects is familiar; tobacco and asbestos, for example, can lead to cancer. But in recent years, scientists are coming to appreciate that exposure to other pollutants in early life also may promote disease much later on.

"It's an emerging area" for research, says Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. It certainly makes sense that if a substance destroys brain cells in early life, the brain may cope by drawing on its reserve capacity until it loses still more cells with aging, he said. Only then would symptoms such as forgetfulness or tremors appear.

Linda Birnbaum, director of experimental toxicology at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says infant mice exposed to chemicals such as PCBs show only very subtle effects in young adulthood. But more dramatic harm in areas such as movement and learning appears when they reach old age.

Animal studies also show clear evidence that being exposed to harmful substances in the womb can harm health later on, she says. For example, rodents that encounter PCBs or dioxins before birth are more susceptible to cancer once they grow up.

Studying delayed effects in people is difficult because they generally must be followed for a long time. Research with lead is easier because scientists can measure the amount that has accumulated in the shinbone over decades and get a read on how much lead a person has been exposed to in the past.

Lead in the blood, by contrast, reflects recent exposure. Virtually all Americans have lead in their blood, but the amounts are far lower today than in the past.

The big reason for the drop: the phasing out of lead in gasoline from 1976 to 1991. Because of that and accompanying measures, the average lead level in the blood of American adults fell 30 percent by 1980 and about 80 percent by 1990.

That's a major success story for environmentalists. But work by Schwartz and Dr. Howard Hu of the University of Michigan suggests that the long-term effects of the high-lead era are still being felt.

In 2006, Schwartz and his colleagues published a study of about 1,000 Baltimore residents. They were ages 50 to 70, old enough to have absorbed plenty of lead before it disappeared from gasoline. They probably got their peak doses in the 1960s and 1970s, Schwartz says, mostly by inhaling air pollution from vehicle exhaust and from other sources in the environment.

The researchers estimated each person's lifetime dose by scanning their shinbones for lead. Then they gave each one a battery of mental-ability tests.

In brief, the scientists found that the higher the lifetime lead dose, the poorer the performance across a wide variety of mental functions, such as verbal and visual memory and language ability. From low to high dose, the difference in mental functioning was about the equivalent of aging by two to six years.

"We think that's a large effect," Schwartz says.

Hu and his colleagues took a slightly different approach in a 2004 study of 466 men with an average age of 67. Those men took a mental-ability test twice, about four years apart on average. Those with the highest bone lead levels showed more decline between exams than those with smaller levels, with the effect of the lead equal to about five years of aging.

Nobody is claiming that lead is the sole cause of age-related mental decline, but it appears to be one of several factors involved, Hu stresses.

If so, it would join such possible influences as high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, emotional stress and maybe education level, said Bradley Wise of the National Institute on Aging. Nobody knows exactly what causes mental decline with age, he says.

Although the studies by Hu and Schwartz suggest lead is involved, Wise and others say they don't prove the link.

"I think many things impact how we age, but I think right now it's maybe premature to be giving lead a huge role in our age-related cognitive decline," says Dr. Margit L. Bleecker, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology in Baltimore. Still, she calls the lead hypothesis "a very interesting idea" deserving more study.

Others are more impressed.

"The new evidence from these studies should concern people" says epidemiologist Andrew Rowland of the University of New Mexico. "These two research groups are finding adverse effects on the aging brain at low levels of lead exposure. More work needs to be done, but these studies are raising important questions."


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long-term effects of the high-lead era are still being felt

I believe there is a strong relationship between lead exposure throughout life and decline of all types in humans, throughout life - the more lead exposure the more of one's life the worse the outcomes. And, as pointed out in this article, folks born in the early 1970s and earlier have a huge lifelong disadvantage, having been poisoned by lead because of really evil industrialists and corrupt political interests

This story will really take off in the next decade...

Disrupt IT


This story is almost beyond comprehension--what causes these freak behaviors?  Just today I found out that someone I knew from birding NEO has likely strangled his mother.

Are we all capable of snapping at a moment's notice?