One in three older adults in the United States dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, and this disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the nation. Alzheimer’s is serious business, and this disease of aging appears to be getting even more serious as life expectancies increase and baby boomers move into their senior years. Life with Alzheimer’s can be isolating, terrifying, debilitating and humiliating for seniors, in addition to costly, which is one reason researchers are so eager to find out what causes this disease so they can determine if it’s preventable or can be better managed.
Numerous genetic factors that contribute to early Alzheimer’s, that which onsets before age 60, have been identified. Late-onset Alzheimer’s, however, appears to be a tougher nut to crack. Despite some genetic predisposition to the disease, patients are clearly falling victim to an additional, as-yet unknown factor that’s making them sick and slowly stealing their minds away before friends and loved ones. Researchers have looked into a huge range of possible causes, and they may have found some: environmental toxins.
Today’s world is filled with toxins, a legacy of decades of poorly regulated industry, chemical spills and irresponsible use of hazardous materials, in addition to mistakes made before people realized the dangers of certain substances. (Radium, for example, was once used as glow-in-the-dark paint because, well, it glowed in the dark.) We’ve learned some hard environmental lessons from the past, including that substances we may think are innocent could turn out to be deadly, and that sometimes it takes decades or even generations to fully understand how dangerous they are.
That’s the case with late-onset Alzheimer’s, which appears to be influenced by exposure to DDT, nitrosamines (including fertilizers and nitrates, used as a food additive), and air pollution (indoor and outdoor). Some of these pollutants are still very much present in our environment today, while others are less common — DDT, for example, has been banned in many regions of the world because of its dangers. This illustrates that in addition to causing cases of late-onset Alzheimer’s now, these toxins will probably play a role in future cases as well, creating a ripple effect through the generations.
This news is grim, but also good. The more we understand about the etiology of Alzheimer’s and other diseases, the more we can do about them — and in this case, the evidence points, yet again, to the need to control pollution in the United States and elsewhere more tightly.
It’s particularly important to make and enforce treaties involving the worst culprits, as the globe pays no attention to borders, and protecting the entire world’s population from diseases like this one should be an important priority. Our greater understanding of this disease brings us one step closer to changing outcomes for patients now and in the future.
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