Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging

toxic chemicalsA new report, Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, put out by Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and Science and Environmental Health Network, looks at the ties between environmental factors and the development of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's Disease, and the 'western disease cluster' - diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Among the environmental factors explored:

  • Lead - Recent evidence links environmental lead exposure in the community to increased risk of cognitive impairment. For example, a recent study of elderly men found that the highest lead-exposed group had on average an additional 15 years of cognitive aging, compared to the lowest lead-exposure group. Several animal studies suggest that exposures in infancy and childhood may sharply increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease decades later. Evidence also implicates lead in increasing risk for Parkinson's disease as well.
  • Air pollution - Recent studies show that air pollution is harmful to the brain, in addition to the lungs, heart, nose and blood vessels. This evidence is drawn from studies of brains of people living in highly polluted cities compared with those living in clean air cities. These studies found evidence starting at young ages of inflammation and cellular damage associated with both early Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
  • Pesticides - A large body of data links exposure to a variety of pesticides with increased risks for Parkinson's disease. Evidence also links chronic low dose exposure to a number of pesticides - primarily in the work setting - with subsequent cognitive decline, such as impaired memory and attention. A study in France found that a history of occupational exposure to pesticides more than doubled the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Exposure to some pesticides has also been linked to dramatically increased risks for diabetes, prediabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

The report also looks at the health risks related to bisphenol A, aluminum, industrial emissions, solvents, PCBs, and electromagnetic fields. Examining the impact of these environmental causal factors on aging related diseases is critical as the number of people in the U.S. who are 65 and older will double by 2030. The authors believe that by addressing these factors, for many people, neurodegenerative diseases can be delayed or avoided altogether.

The study also looks at the food supply and how "inflammatory" nutrients, as opposed to antioxidant nutrients, have come to dominate through agriculture and food production choices, as well as marketing. These inflammatory nutrients play a role not only in neurodegenerative diseases, but in diabetes, cancer and heart disease, too. And the study does not shy away from criticizing the modern agricultural system, asserting that "Topsoil loss; pollution of air and water with agricultural chemicals; eutrophication of lakes, rivers, and coastal waters; loss of habitat and biodiversity; and economic hardship in farming communities are the legacy of this agricultural revolution." Particularly worrying are the increases in sugar, corn-based sweetener and fat consumption, which went up a whopping 78% between the start and the end of the 20th Century.

Dietary choices are working against health in concert with other factors. Toxic chemical exposures can "chronically up-regulate inflammation and oxidative stress so that they become initiators or promoters of disease". This increase in inflammatory response and the presence of free radicals from oxidative stress are indicated not just in neurodegeneration, but also elevate the risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders.

The report makes a number of policy recommendations for helping to reduce the environmental causes of neurodegenerative diseases, as well as a host of other diseases:

  • Increase sustainable, diversified and local alternatives to industrial farming - to improve the nutritional value of food, cut down on harmful content, ensure access to healthy food, and lessen serious damage to the environment;
  • Regulatory reform of chemical policy that helps prevent hazardous toxic exposures from air, water, food, and other consumer products; business policy changes that give preference to purchasing and using products made of safer chemicals;
  • Health care policy changes that increase the focus on disease prevention and ensure equitable and accessible health care for all; and,
  • An energy policy that reduces toxic emissions, promotes conservation and efficiency, curtails dependence on fossil fuels, and encourages more physical activity.

The study does not look specifically at the increasing number of links between cancer and environmental toxins, although it does point out that while less infants and children die of infectious diseases than at the beginning of the 20th century, more are afflicted with cancer, as well as birth defects, asthma and other illnesses. Exposure to chemicals and diet are implicated in breast cancer, air pollution - and in particular radon - has been indicated in some lung cancers and agents like benzene, asbestos, MTBE, arsenic and a long list of hazardous materials are considered to increase cancer risk, overall. In April of this year, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced legislation to study the effects of environmental factors on women's health, as women have been shown to bear the brunt of environmental toxins in terms of deteriorating health. Still, men are not immune to the increased incidences of cancer and other diseases at a relatively young age, nor the environmental risks to healthy aging.

As individuals, we can make better food choices, focusing on locally grown, fresh produce and avoiding processed foods. We can make better product choices, avoiding cleaning solutions, fertilizers and other products that contain toxic chemicals. We can also push for regulations that will lead to cleaner air and water, banning of toxic chemicals and smarter food policies.

It may seem incredibly obvious, but human health and the health of the environment are inextricably linked. The toxins that we put into the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that nourishes our food, the homes we inhabit, all must be filtered through our lungs, kidneys, livers, pancreas and blood stream. So let's give our organs a break and become better stewards of the planet. 

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  • Posted on Nov. 11, 2008. Listed in:

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