Modern Life Could Be Making Dementia More Common

Dementia is affecting people more and earlier than ever before — but is pollution the culprit?

VICTOR DE SCHWANBERG/Science Photo Library/Corbis

People are developing and dying from dementia almost a decade earlier than they used to — and it might be thanks to pollution.

A new study published in the Surgical Neurology International journal suggests that heightened levels of pollution and insecticides in the environment could be causing people to develop dementia younger than ever before. After comparing data from 21 countries between 1989 and 2010, researchers from Bournemouth University found that people are now regularly being diagnosed with dementia as early as their 40s, Daniela Deane writes for The Washington Post.

"The rate of increase in such a short time suggests a silent or even a 'hidden' epidemic, in which environmental factors must play a major part, not just aging,” lead author Colin Pritchard wrote in a press release. “Modern living produces multi-interactional environmental pollution but the changes in human morbidity, including neurological disease is remarkable and points to environmental influences."

Growing dementia rates are particularly noticeable in the United States, where researchers found that deaths related to neurological problems have tripled for men and quintupled for women aged 55 and older. Dementia typically affects people aged 60 and older. According to Pritchard, the increase in early-onset dementia is so stark that it can’t be blamed solely on aging populations and better diagnoses.

“The environmental changes in the last 20 years have seen increases in the human environment of petro-chemicals — air transport — quadrupling of motor vehicles, insecticides and rises in background electro-magnetic-field, and so on,” Pritchard wrote.

However, not everyone is convinced that pollution is to blame. While increased pollution and insecticides could be a cause for higher rates of dementia, it is a complicated neurological disease that can be rooted in many different factors, Dr. Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, tells Kat Lay for the London Times.

The Centers for Disease Control defines dementia as “an umbrella term for a group of cognitive disorders typically characterized by memory impairment, as well as marked difficulty in the domains of language, motor activity, object recognition, and disturbance of executive function – the ability to plan, organize, and abstract.”

While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and well-known form of dementia, there are several other forms, too. It’s also possible that as medications for conditions like heart disease have gotten better, dementia has risen to take its place. After all, as one expert told Lay, people have to die of something.

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