Exciting: New ‘Seaweed-Based’ Alzheimer’s Drug Shows Extreme Promise

It has been nearly 20 years since a new drug has been developed to combat Alzheimer’s disease. Thankfully, it won’t be another 20 years until such a feat is accomplished, as a new drug called Oligomannate has been approved for the treatment of “mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease and improving cognitive function.” Only thing is – the approval takes place in China, and has yet to go through the proper channels to become approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Dementia, used to describe a decline in cognitive function and memory, is said to be one of the costliest conditions we’re facing today. The prevalence of dementia is shocking, with an estimated 50 million people worldwide living with the condition in 2017. Worse, this number will almost double every 20 years.

Unfortunately, there has been little headway in terms of medical advancement in reliably treating and preventing the disease. Of course, we’ve made strides in discovering what might be the root causes and how to combat those root causes, but no real solution has yet to surface from the medical field.

As explained by Dr. Ronald Petersen, it’s hypothesized that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the presence of plaques and tangles in the brain. These plaques, known as amyloid plaques, build up in the brain in much the same way that plaques can build up in our arteries, causing the neural pathways to be slowed and damaged. Further, once these amyloid plaques are misprocessed and present in the brain, it leads to the misprocessing of something known as tau proteins, which leads to tangles in the brain, the death of nerve cells, and ultimately, dementia.

A Glimmer of Hope – Seaweed

In 1997, Geng Meiyu at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other researchers discovered how a sugar found in seaweed could somehow play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. What they didn’t realize was that more than 20 years later the research would expand into something that could be extremely exciting for the world at large.

Interestingly, it has been observed that there’s a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s among those who eat lots of seaweed, leading the researchers to hone in on the possible preventative connection.

Geng Meiyu and researchers published a paper outlining how the molecule found in seaweed reduces the formation of a protein harmful to neurons while also regulating the bacterium colonies in the gut to reduce the risk of brain inflammation. This means that Oligomannate not only relieves individuals of dementia symptoms, but also targets what is said to be the root cause of the disease – the amyloid plaques.

Though we should know by now that gut health influences our body on every level, this research “doubles down” on just how strong the connection between the gut and brain health truly is.

“These results advance our understanding of the mechanisms that play a role in Alzheimer’s disease and imply that the gut microbiome is a valid target for the development of therapies,” neurologist Philip Scheltens, who advises Green Valley and heads the Alzheimer Center Amsterdam, said in the statement.

For more than 20 years, pharmaceutical companies have invested hundreds of billions of dollars on Alzheimer’s drugs. South China Morning Post reports that more than 320 drugs were brought to clinical trial, with only 5 being approved for clinical use to relieve dementia symptoms. Unfortunately, none of them rose above the challenge that is Alzheimer’s, leading to the closure of numerous Alzheimer’s-related programs.

Though Oligomannate will be approved “very soon” in China, it will have to go through numerous hurdles to get approval by other government bodies to be used in places like Europe and the U.S.

Alzheimer’s is scary. Though everyone should practice every natural, preventative solution as possible, such as exercising regularly, training your brain with mental exercises, and consuming brain-healthy coconut oil, it’s exciting to see any advancement into treating an ailment we have largely failed at treating.

Dementia Rates in the U.S. Fell 24% from 2000 to 2012, But…

The thought of developing dementia in old age is terrifying for many, especially if they’ve watched a loved one suffer under its grip. A bit of good news, though; a study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that overall dementia rates in the United States fell 24% from 2000 to 2012. That means about one million fewer Americans had the condition. [1]

Dr. Kenneth Langa, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and a coauthor of the new study, said:

“It’s definitely good news. Even without a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or a new medication, there are things that we can do socially and medically and behaviorally that can significantly reduce the risk.”

The term “dementia” refers to a loss of memory or other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease, caused by a buildup of plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, is the most common form of dementia. Vascular dementia, which can occur after a person has suffered a stroke, is the 2nd most common form of dementia.

Source: Alzheimer’s San Diego

Determining the Numbers

The study, which began in 1992, looked at over 21,000 adults over age 50. Data were collected on the individuals every two years. Researchers conducted detailed interviews with the participants about their health, income, cognitive ability, and life circumstances. The investigators also conducted physical tests and body measurements, and took blood and saliva samples. They discovered the following:

  • Dementia prevalence among adults 65 and older decreased from 11.6% in 2000 to 8.8% in 2012
  • Participants who had more education had the lowest rates of dementia
  • The average years of education increased significantly from 11.8 years in 2000 to 12.7 years in 2012.
  • The drop in dementia prevalence occurred despite a significant age- and sex-adjusted increase in between the data-collection years in the cardiovascular risk profile (e.g., prevalence of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity) among older U.S. adults.

Read: How to Stay Sharp and Avoid Dementia as You Age

Contributing Factors to the Decline

The reasons behind the drop in dementia rates aren’t clear, but there are some findings that stand out.

The JAMA study shows – as do past studies – that both early education and lifelong education appear to help keep the mind healthy and sharp. The authors suggest that perhaps education ought to be viewed as “a potent strategy for the primary prevention of dementia in both high- and low-income countries around the world.”

In fact, according to the authors, past studies have shown that:

“…the relationships among education, brain biology, and cognitive function are complex and likely multidirectional; for instance, a number of recent population-based studies have shown genetic links with level of educational attainment and with the risk of cognitive decline in later life.”

Additionally, highly educated individuals are more likely to not smoke, to get more exercise, and to eat a healthier diet. This is also true of people who have more cognitively complex occupations.

Source: Public Health England

Better access to healthcare also played a role in the decline, the researchers wrote.

Dementia is Still a Serious Problem

The advice embedded in the results is clear: stay active, both physically and mentally. Never stop learning. Eat right. Don’t smoke. More people are getting the message that staying propped up in front of the TV is hazardous to health, and are heeding the warning.

Overall, the drop in dementia rates could be largely due to the better control of cardiovascular risk factors, like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Keith Fargo is the director of scientific programs and outreach, medical and scientific relations, at the Alzheimer’s Association. He said:

“If you control those risk factors, it’s natural to expect that rates of vascular dementia will go down. It’s also reasonable to expect that Alzheimer’s-related dementia may go down as well because now, instead of having both, you have Alzheimer’s in an overall healthier brain.” [2]

Read: How Music ‘Radically’ Improves the Brain, Dementia, and Alzheimer’s

However, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory loss remain a huge public health challenge and a significant financial burden. There are currently about five million Americans suffering with dementia. As people continue to live longer, that number is expected to triple by 2050. [1]

The number of Americans over age 65 is expected to double by 2050, to 84 million. That means that even if the percentage of elderly people who develop dementia is smaller than previously estimated, the total number of Americans with dementia will continue to increase, according to Fargo. He said:

“Alzheimer’s is going to remain the public health crisis of our time, even with modestly reduced rates.”

Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Center for Cognitive Health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said:

“What we need now is to educate middle-aged people, since that’s where the risk factors are most important. Unfortunately, as the baby boomers turn 80, I worry that the silver tsunami will swamp this benefit.” [2]

Sources:

[1] CNN

[2] UPI

Alert.Psychnews

Alzheimer’s San Diego

Public Health England

Could This Sleeping Issue Actually Lead to Alzheimer’s Disease

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder that causes a person to briefly and repeatedly stop breathing in his or her sleep. You may not know this, but the issue may actually lead to numerous health ailments, with one recent study finding that obstructive sleep apnea appears to increase one’s odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Yikes.

Sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open even as the body works to keep breathing. More than 18 million adults in the United States have OSA and either experience or are at a higher risk of experiencing high blood pressure, heart disease, and mood and memory problems (Alzheimer’s disease) due to the disorder.

Read: How a Single Night of Lost Sleep can Age Your Brain Significantly, Plus 6 Ways to Sleep Better

For the study, lead researcher neurologist Dr. Diego Carvalho and his colleagues looked at 288 adults, aged 65 and older, who did not have thinking or memory problems. The participants underwent brain scans to determine if they had “tau protein tangles” in the temporal lobe, the part of the brain involved in memory and perception of time. The temporal lobe is more likely to accumulate tau tangles than other areas of the brain.

In addition, the researchers asked the participants’ bed partners if they had ever seen them experiencing sleep apnea; 43 individuals with symptoms were identified.

Those adults were found to have more than 5% more tau than those without sleep apnea symptoms. That finding remained consistent after the team adjusted for other factors linked to tau accumulation, including age, sex, education, cardiovascular risk factors, and other sleep problems.

Carvalho said:

“Since tau accumulation is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, an increase in tau raises concern that sleep apnea could make [people] with sleep apnea more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.”

The study backs previous studies suggesting that sleep apnea increases the risk of dementia.

Carvalho added:

“However, it is also possible that Alzheimer’s disease could predispose people to sleep apnea or that there is a bidirectional relationship between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Read: 5 Simple Lifestyle Changes that Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Study Limitations

The study was limited by the small number of participants, the lack of tests to confirm a diagnosis of sleep apnea and uncertainty over whether any of the participants were already being treated for it.

Researchers haven’t identified the mechanism behind sleep apnea’s apparent influence on Alzheimer’s risk, and don’t know if sleep apnea causes the buildup of “tau” protein tangles in the brain that are a marker for Alzheimer’s, or if the increased tau contributes to sleep apnea.

However, they suspect that the brain experiences excess stress due to less oxygen getting to the organ during apnea episodes. Sleep disturbances may also disrupt the brain’s circadian rhythms, the internal “body clock” that cycles between alertness and sleepiness.

The brain solidifies memories during sleep, Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association, who reviewed the study, said. Interrupting that process may have a negative effect on both memory and thinking.

“What we know now about the importance of sleep is that good sleep is really important for your overall health,” said Edelmayer.

The findings are slated to be presented at an AAN meeting in Philadelphia on May 4. Research presented at meetings is typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Sources:

[1] National Sleep Foundation

[2] HealthDay

EurekAlert

Researchers: Mediterranean Diet Could Protect Your Brain As You Age

Adopting a Mediterranean-style diet may help protect your brain as you age, numerous studies show. [1]

At least 2 studies concluded that people’s risk for dementia declined when they ate the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay (MIND) diet. Think of it as sort of a hybrid of the original Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, both of which were designed to improve heart health.

The DASH diet consists of foods that are low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol, and is intended to lower blood pressure. It is rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts. It’s quite similar to the Mediterranean diet, but the Mediterranean diet is a bit more specific, in that butter is replaced with olive oil and other healthful fats, and herbs are substituted for salt.

Source: Gill Heart & Vascular Institute

In one of those studies, seniors who strictly followed the MIND diet were found to have a 35% reduced risk of age-related decline in brain function. Even those who followed the diet loosely reduced their risk of brain decline between 18-24%. Those who closely followed the diet were also 35% less likely to perform poorly on tests of brain function.

Dean Hartley, director of science initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association, said:

“We’ve always been saying that a healthy heart is a healthy brain. Your brain uses 20% of your cardiac output for getting oxygen and glucose. If you don’t have a good pump, that saps the brain of a lot of things needed to sustain its normal function.”

Adhering to a heart-healthy diet also helps protect blood vessels inside the brain, thereby reducing the risk of mini-strokes and other health problems.

Read: 7 Natural Brain Foods for Cognition and Concentration

The second study used data from the U.S.-based Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study, which involved about 7,000 women over the course of 10 years. That research revealed that women who closely followed the MIND diet were 34% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared to the women who didn’t follow the diet at all.

However, like the first study, following the MIND diet even part of the time still provided much-needed health perks. Women who moderately followed the eating pattern were between 21-24% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, the researchers found.

Even More Evidence

Source: Canadian Living

An additional 2 studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association meeting revealed the following:

  • In a Swedish study of more than 2,000 participants, those who ate a healthy diet called the ‘Nordic Prudent Dietary Pattern’ for 6 years had better brain health. People who follow the Nordic diet limit their consumption of root vegetables, refined grains, butter and margarine, as well as sugary foods and fruit juice.
  • Researchers from Columbia University found that people who consumed a diet that encourages inflammation had a difficult time playing brain games. A smaller total volume of gray matter was observed in MRI scans of those participants’ brains. What is an inflammatory diet? High intake of cholesterol, sugar, vegetable oil, fried foods, saturated fats, and more.

It’s important to note that all of the studies were observational, so they can’t prove cause-and-effect. In order to do that, scientifically controlled experiments are necessary. [2]

Read: 5 Things You Should be Eating to Protect Your Brain as It Ages

A lead study author Claire McEvoy, of the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine, said:

“I think the studies, taken together, suggest a role for high quality dietary patterns in brain health and for protection against cognitive decline during aging. Diet is modifiable, and in light of these studies we need clinical trials to test whether changing diet can improve or maintain cognition.”

Keith Fargo, Alzheimer’s Association Director of Scientific Programs and Outreach, was encouraged by the size and depth of the research. He said:

“Although the idea that a healthy diet can help protect against cognitive decline as we age is not new, the size and length of these 4 studies demonstrate how powerful good dietary practices may be in maintaining brain health and function.”

Sources:

[1] Health Day

[2] CNN

Gill Heart & Vascular Institute

Canadian Living

This “Holy Herb’ Shows Promise in Treating Alzheimer’s Disease

A shrub known as Yerba santa, dubbed “holy herb” in Spanish, appears to show promise in treating Alzheimer’s disease, researchers say. It has the potential to reduce brain swelling in people with dementia. [1]

Native to California,, Yerba santa has long been used as a treatment for fevers, headaches, and other common ailments. But researchers at Salk’s Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory in San Diego believe it could be used to treat much more serious health problems. In fact, millions of dementia patients stand to benefit from the natural treatment, they claim.

According to lab manager Professor Dave Schubert and his team, a molecule in the shrub called sterubin – the plant’s most active component – could be the key to transforming millions of lives.

Related Read: Marijuana Compound Superior to Drugs for Alzheimer’s Disease

The team found that sterubin had a significant anti-inflammatory effect on brain cells called microglia, which are involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, among other ailments.

The researchers further found that sterubin effectively removes iron. This is an important discovery, as iron contributes to nerve cell damage in the aging brain and neurodegenerative diseases.

Sterubin was found to effectively reduce numerous causes of cell death in the nerve cells.

Senior scientist Pamela Maher said:

“This is a compound that was known but ignored. Not only did sterubin turn out to be much more effective than the other flavonoids in Yerba santa in our assays, it appears as good as, if not better than, other flavonoids we have studied.”

Read: Trial Suggests Resveratrol Might Prevent, Slow Alzheimer’s Disease

The lab’s next step is to test sterubin in an animal model of Alzheimer’s to determine its medicinal qualities and toxicity level in animals. Once that’s completed, the researchers hope to test the compound in humans. However, in order to do so, it will be necessary to use sterubin derived from plants grown under standardized, controlled conditions, Maher said.

It has also been reported that researchers may opt to use a synthetic derivative of sterubin rather than use sterubin drawn from the plant. [2]

Maher said: [1]

“Alzheimer’s disease is a leading cause of death in the United States. And because age is a major risk factor, researchers are looking at ways to counter aging’s effects on the brain.

Our identification of sterubin as a potent neuroprotective component of a native California plant called Yerba santa is a promising step in that direction.”

The research is published in the journal Redox Biology.

Sources:

[1] Daily Mail

[2] Futurism (featured image source)

Blood Test Could Predict Alzheimer’s More than 15 Years Before Onset

Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease that many people fear, so it’s super exciting to hear that a blood test could detect the disease as many as 16 years before onset. This would give doctors and sufferers time to make lifestyle changes and try treatments that could slow the onset of the disease earlier rather than later.

The test is simple. It is designed to measure changes in the levels of neurofilament light chain (NfL), a certain protein found in blood. Researchers wrote in the journal Nature Medicine that when levels of NfL rise, it may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

Lead researcher Mathias Jucker, professor of cell biology of neurological diseases at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, explained that NfL is a “marker in the blood which gives an indication of nerve cell loss in the brain. The more neurofilament you have in the blood, the more brain damage you have.”

Read: 9 Surprising Risk Factors Associated with Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s remains an ‘incurable disease,’ unfortunately. But Jucker said the test will be “very important for clinical studies.” Being able to spot the disease years before the manifestation of symptoms could allow researchers to monitor the effectiveness of new treatments before symptoms arise, simply by measuring NfL levels.

Jucker said:

“Alzheimer’s disease starts at least a decade, maybe even 20 years, before we have any symptoms.”

It is not clear what causes Alzheimer’s to develop, which has made it difficult to predict its onset. It is believed that the disease is driven by the production and proliferation of amyloid-beta plaques in the brain.

As many as 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That number is expected to rise to almost 14 million by the year 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association says. [1] [2]

 

Source: News-medical.net

Hunting for Signs of Alzheimer’s

For the study, the researchers recruited more than 400 people, including about 250 who had a genetic mutation that made them more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. This version of Alzheimer’s is quite rare and represents only 1% of all cases of the disease. [1] [2]

The researchers took blood samples from the participants and conducted brain scans and cognitive tests every 2-3 years. [2]

The team used a blood test kit similar to others already on the market that are not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to diagnose or predict brain damage.

People with the genetic mutation had higher baseline levels of NfL that rose throughout the duration of the study. By comparison, participants without the mutation had low baseline NfL levels that remained steady. The researchers spotted a noticeable difference in levels of the protein between both groups, even 16 years before the onset of symptoms.

Stephanie Schultz, a graduate student at Washington University, said:

“Sixteen years before symptoms arise is really quite early in the disease process, but we were able to see differences even then. This could be a good preclinical biomarker to identify those who will go on to develop clinical symptoms.”

The researchers then conducted brain scans and cognitive tests on 40 of the participants who had the gene mutation 2 years after the study began. They found that those individuals had fewer neurons in brain tissue and performed worse and cognitive tests, compared to those without the gene variant.

The team further observed that there was an increase in NfL proteins at the same time the precuneus of the brain – which plays a role in memory – thinned and shrank.

Study co-author Brian Gordon, an assistant professor of radiology at Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, said:

“This is something that would be easy to incorporate into a screening test in a neurology clinic.

We validated it in people with Alzheimer’s disease because we know their brains undergo lots of neurodegeneration, but this marker isn’t specific for Alzheimer’s. High levels could be a sign of many different neurological diseases and injuries.”

Source: MedIndia.net

For example, higher NfL protein levels are seen in people with progressive brain disorders like Lewy body dementia and Huntington’s disease. Spikes in protein levels can also be seen in people with multiple sclerosis (MS) who experience a sudden episode of symptoms, and in football players who have received a blow to the head.

For those reasons, researchers are working to determine 2 hallmarks before the test is used to predict Alzheimer’s: How much protein in the blood is too much, and how quickly protein levels spike before doctors become concerned.

It will take several years, but the team hopes the blood test can be adapted as an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

Read: 5 Simple Lifestyle Changes that Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Gordon said:

“I could see this being used in the clinic in a few years to identify signs of brain damage in individual patients. We’re not at the point we can tell people: ‘In 5 years you’ll have dementia.’ We are all working towards that.”

In 2015, researchers announced that another type of blood test, this one measuring the “vitality” of certain genes that are indicative of a person’s biological age versus their chronological age, allowed them to predict who would develop Alzheimer’s disease years before symptoms emerged.

That particular test measured RNA, an acid associated with genes in different body tissues. People who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease had an altered RNA signature in their blood and a lower healthy aging score.

Sources:

[1] CNN

[2] Daily Mail

News-Medical

MedIndia

Can Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease be Predicted and Prevented?

With an aging population comes increasing fear of a disease that may be more frightening to many people than cancer or heart disease. Both of those diseases—formerly death-sentences if diagnosed—are showing improving survival rates due to breakthroughs in research and improved diagnosis and treatment methods.

Alzheimer’s Disease is the scourge of the elderly and near-elderly. Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia can sometimes reduce high-functioning adults to little more than large-sized two-year-olds, robbing them of language, problem-solving abilities, reasoning, memory, and other cognitive functions.

The threat of losing dignity, independence, and self-sufficiency of basic human needs is a great fear for those approaching their elder years. Some rationalize that those with severe dementia may lack the sufficient mental acuity to realize the full extent of their illness, preventing some victims from recognizing that they even have dementia.

Is Dementia Inevitable?

According to Alzheimer’s Disease Statistics, an estimated 5.7 million people in the United States have dementia, with twenty-five percent of those suffering severe dementia. Though common in older people, dementia is not thought to be a normal result of aging, as many in their 90’s and above are symptom-free. However, the causes of dementia are not known at this time.

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness or so-called ‘senior moments,’ such as the inability to find the right words, difficulty remembering names, forgetting where things were placed, and the classic frustration felt when you’ve gone purposefully into a room only to realize the purpose has been forgotten. These normal moments of forgetfulness can trigger fear that dementia is approaching.

Can Alzheimer’s Disease be Prevented?

Alzheimer’s Disease is one form of dementia, a general term for diminished mental capabilities. There are many classifications of dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s is characterized by clumps of protein called plaques and tangled fibers inside the nerve cells of the brain. Other forms of dementia affect the brain differently. Dementia cannot be cured; however, there is growing evidence that steps can be taken to delay or prevent the onset of dementia.

A comprehensive dementia report on WebMD describes some of the factors apparently offering some protection or delay against the onset of dementia. These include maintaining tight control of glucose levels and engaging in intellectually stimulating activities or mind exercices. Scientists hypothesize that intellectual activity increases the brain’s ability to compensate for the physical changes associated with dementia.

Other factors being studied with potential impact of preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia include lowering blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine, lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, increasing exercise, and obtaining higher education.

Diagnosing Dementia – A Dementia Test

After eliminating diseases and physical injuries that can cause dementia-like symptoms, doctors arrive at a dementia diagnosis if two or more brain functions are significantly impaired. Impaired brain functions might include memory loss, loss of language skills, impaired perception, dramatic personality changes, and impaired problem-solving, reasoning, and judgment.

Normal memory loss can be frightening, as one may fear the onset of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. There may now be an easy means of calming one’s fears or helping to confirm the worst. Scientists at The Ohio State University Medical College have developed a self-administered dementia test called SAGE, which they claim can identify mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and early dementia. The test, which is available for free download, takes about fifteen minutes and includes self-scoring instructions.

Protection Against Dementia

Though Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia are widely feared due to the impacts they have on mental functioning and maintaining self-sufficiency, there is promise that the onset of dementia can be prevented or delayed by exercising the mind, physical exercise, and making other healthy lifestyle choices. The SAGE dementia test may ease the minds of those concerned that dementia is beginning.

Air Pollution May be Dumbing People Down, Study Suggests

A new study suggests that air pollution may come with more health consequences than previously thought. Specifically, prolonged exposure to dirty air may have a negative impact on cognitive abilities, especially in older men.

The study found that breathing polluted air causes a “steep reduction” in verbal and math test scores.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) scientists looked at data from a large Chinese study that compared the cognitive test scores of almost 32,000 people over the age of 10 between 2010 and 2014 with their exposure to short- and long-term air pollution.

The team found that the more air pollution someone was exposed to, the lower their verbal and math scores fell. The decline in verbal scores was particularly pronounced in older men and people with less education. [1] [2]

People with less education were more likely to suffer cognitive decline because they tend to work outside more often and are exposed to higher levels of pollution. [2]

Study author Xiaobo Zhang of Peking University said: [1]

“The damage air pollution has on aging brains likely imposes substantial health and economic cost, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly to both running daily errands and making high-stakes economic decisions.”

Cognitive decline or impairment are potential risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. An August 2017 study found that air pollution may be to blame for 20% of all dementia cases in the U.S.

Poor developing nations often grapple with extreme levels of air pollution. The study suggests these dirty environments may hamper economic growth in the parts of the world that need it most.

Zhang said:

“The damage on cognitive ability by air pollution also likely impedes the development of human capital. Therefore, a narrow focus on the negative effect on health may underestimate the total cost of air pollution. Our findings on the damaging effect of air pollution on cognition imply that the indirect effect of pollution on social welfare could be much larger than previously thought.”

Nearly everyone on earth is exposed to pollution, with 1 out of 10 of the planet’s inhabitants breathing heavily polluted air, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Africa and Asia are the most polluted regions of the world.

In China, air pollution is so severe that the country is expected to have more than 800,000 cases of lung cancer by 2020. Over the years, smog in China has sent thousands of people to emergency departments and businesses have had to shut down in order to keep workers and minimize their exposure to toxic air.

The top 20 most-polluted cities in the world all reside in developing countries, but that doesn’t mean that developed-country dwellers are safe from the toxins swirling around in the environment. A study in January 2018 found that 75% of deaths related to air pollution in India were in rural areas. [2]

Wealthy cities are at least fortunate enough to be able to afford creative solutions to the problem of air pollution. For example, in China, vertical forests are being planted to absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen. Sadly, this does little to help people living in the rural areas of the country, where residents are struck breathing noxious air.

The team isn’t sure how air pollution causes dementia, but they theorize that it may have a negative effect on the brain’s white matter, which “coordinates communication among brain regions.”

James Hendrix, the director of Global Science Initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, however, said that’s purely speculation. It’s difficult to tease out a causal link between air pollution and cognitive decline.

“I would say that it probably increases your risk – how much is difficult to say.”

There might not be much you can do about your exposure to pollution, but Hendrix noted that eating healthily, getting ample physical activity, and getting enough cognitive stimulation and social interaction reduces your risk of suffering from cognitive problems.

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sources:

[1] CNN

[2] NPR