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Is Alzheimer’s Damage Linked to Deadly Pollution of Babies, Not Old Age?

The link between early exposure to pollution and Alzheimer's is stronger than ever, as shown by developing research

The Chinese have figured out that they have a giant environmental problem. Folks in Beijing, some days, literally can’t breathe. Over a million Chinese die prematurely every year because of air pollution. — Joe Biden

Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a disease of old age; it begins in infancy, possibly even before birth, because of pollution. Pollution, therefore, initiates the death spiral even before children can walk and talk

Babies’ fates are sealed by the pollution created in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the pollutants in the food we eat as well as the oceans in which we swim. 

Not a fancy of fanatical environmental groups, the facts are coming in daily with ever-increasing disturbing research making a strong case for pollution as the ultimate brain destroyer

Photo: ©️P. A. Farrell

In the Beginning

Somewhere in the Eastern or Western hemispheres, a baby is born. A gift from God, the people, may say, but the child is already damaged by the greed, carelessness, and behavior that had betrayed this infant’s trust before it even knew trust existed. 

Detailing how this child has been damaged before birth, after birth, and into its childhood and adult years is a torturous route. The journey reveals a total disregard for this planet, its oceans, its air, and every living creature on it. Is that why we want to go to other planets and explore the stars? 

We’ve worked diligently to ruin Earth, and it is going to be an incredibly difficult, dangerous, and expensive repair. Uppermost in this chain of events that must take place to return health to the planet is our behavior and our business models

Both go hand-in-hand and contribute to this early beginning demise of an infant’s brain.

Urban planners, too, have played their role in this dire drama of destruction. For example, once the most powerful man in New York State, Robert Moses, believed that highways were the city’s future and that of Long Island. Accordingly, he began to destroy neighborhoods and build highways through the city and out to Long Island. 

In a minor effort at goodwill for children, Moses created something in addition to highways; playgrounds. Where were the playgrounds placed? All of them were along the highways that Moses was building. When air pollution was of no concern to him or most others, the children in those playgrounds inhaled deeply. 

The kids took in the lead and all of the damaging byproducts of automobile emissions. They didn’t have to eat lead paint, they inhaled lead and the residual microgarbage from car tires.

Lead is one of the most invasive substances to burrow its way into the brain, where it stays forever, causing developmental damage. These children would carry this “gift” from Moses with them for the rest of their lives.

Moses’ plans were cut short by an urban activist, Jane Jacobs, who saw how the city plans were damaging. Readers can catch a glimpse of the battle for New York City here and a documentary here.

Photo by Ria Puskas 

A Climate Change Pioneer Ignored

One hundred-sixty-four years ago, when no one thought about the environment or the new science of ecology and climate change wasn’t a word in any books, one woman stands out. Eunice Foote published a paper in 1856 on the heat-trapping effects of CO2. Climate change science and the greenhouse effect were born.

Foote’s paper was left to languish (on p. 382) in the back of a prestigious journal, The American Journal of Science and Arts, and basically ignored. A scientist, feminist, and pioneer in climate change science, she would write long before “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. A brief animation of the effects of climate change can be viewed here

Now that we’ve waited for so many years to notice how the climate is warming, we have to face that infant’s realities and how this all came to be.

Photo by Brian Yurasits 

The Word Is Plastics

The scene from “The Graduate” comes to mind whenever I hear this word. However, the miracle product, plastics, for consumers and manufacturers has become the bane of our existence. Wrapping everything imaginable in plastic and then discarding it became a way of life. Who thought it wouldn’t break down, and we’d be fine? 

Even clothing contains cloths derived from plastic. Natural fibers have been pushed out of the market, and we are encouraged to keep buying more clothing to keep up with the latest fashions. The garbage keeps piling up as a result.

One of my oceanography professors decades ago told us about plastics and The Sargasso Sea. An area rich in seaweed, the “sea,” serves both as a birthing and protective area for sea life, but it has one other main distinction: the North Atlantic garbage patch. But plastics don’t merely float there.

Plastic debris absorbs toxic chemicals, potentially poisoning anything that eats it. Microbes that eat plastics may not be the solution for which we prayed. This is because “…it’s unclear whether this enzyme or similar enzymes, are safe to use in widespread environmental remediation.” 

But that’s only part of the equation leading us to that baby that greeted the world with its first cry. The real danger, which may be worse than what we can see, is the unseen plastic; microplastic is found in our food and the air we breathe.

The Seen and Unseen Plastic Menace

As the bits of plastic degrade into smaller and smaller bits of microplastic (MP), the danger to that just-born child increases

MP are of special concern since their bioaccumulation potential increases with decreasing size. MP may be ingested by various organisms ranging from plankton and fish to birds and even mammals, and accumulate throughout the aquatic food web. In addition, plastics contain a multitude of chemical additives and adsorb organic contaminants from the surrounding media. Since these compounds can transfer to organisms upon ingestion, MP act as vectors for other organic pollutants and are, therefore, a source of wildlife exposure to these chemicals.

By the year 2025, we are estimated to have dumped over 11 billion tons of plastics in our environment where the winds will take the tiny bits and spread them to urban and wilderness areas. We will have done an excellent job of destroying our living space. 

Worse than that, we will have contributed to the painful disabilities of the world’s infants and children with all forms of pollution. What an accomplishment to put into history books.

Some scientists are now referring to a phenomenon called “plastic rain,” which is spiraling the Earth. The normal earth atmospheric movement, the Coriolus Effect, would indicate “that while urban centers may be the initial source, plastics accumulate in the atmosphere over longer time periods, are transported long distances, and are deposited during favorable conditions such as slower air-mass velocities or intersections with mountain ranges.” Contamination by plastic pollution, therefore, can be found anywhere on Earth. How much pollution is on Mt. Everest?

Of course, we will have continued our staunch attack on our oceans, too. Almost 16 million tons of microplastics are expected to be currently or soon to be embedded in the ocean floor. The total of it all, including in the Mariana Trench, is “up to 35 times more than the estimated weight of plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface.”

Thanks to all for the discarded plastic coffee cups, the shopping bags, food trays, trinkets, toys, and many other “disposable” plastic objects. And let’s not forget the clothing industry with its ever-changing designs to create a constant need to buy new and discard the old. In 2017, it was estimated to generate $2.5 trillion in business. Many garments are made from plastic-derived fabrics.

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič 

Childhood, Pollution, and Alzheimer’s

Research with older adults has found a relationship between Alzheimer’s and air pollution. In one study in China, long-term exposure to air pollution showed poor performance on nonverbal and math tests. Obviously, this does not indicate Alzheimer’s since that disease can only be, at this time, established on autopsy. But it points to a form of cognitive decline and dementia other than Alzheimer’s (SDAT).

A second study in England of adults age 50 to 79 with Alzheimer’s and living in greater London found that 39% of those with the highest annual concentration of air pollution in their areas showed the highest degree of dementia; up to 1.4 times the risk of those living in areas with lower pollution concentration. 

Another study in the United States of 998 women showed a greater decline in the learning of words for those exposed to a high concentration of air pollution in the preceding three years. Neuroimaging also indicated atrophy of the brain in areas typically affected by Alzheimer’s.

A study of 19,000 retired nurses found that those exposed over the years to fine particle pollution experienced faster cognitive decline than those who had not been in these polluted areas.

The internal combustion engine exhaust has been established as one source of pollution, augmenting cognitive decline in numerous studies.

However, children get an early start on pollution-related brain damage, as shown by another study in Mexico City

Alzheimer’s disease starts in children’s brainstems and has been found in residents of Mexico City as young as 11 months of age. According to this research, “Alzheimer’s disease starting in the brainstem of young children (is) affecting 99.5% of young urbanites in a serious health crisis.”

On autopsy, typical amyloid-beta was found at age 11 months, and in children and teens, there was a noted loss of neuronal density, loss of synapses, and changes to the hippocampus.

We strongly suggest the first two decades of life are critical for brain damage associated to environmental pollutant exposures, and although there is no doubt considerable individual AD progression differences are likely determined by APOE and factors such as gender, metabolism, nutrition, genetics, occupational history and others.

Photo by Tessa Rampersad 

Pollution Impairment and Dementia

As has been shown by studies of pollution, the air we breathe may have an effect on and possible involvement in diseases such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. But new research appears to have proven this untrue.

Researchers note a higher incidence of dementia but not Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis related to proximity to major highways. A study in Canada looked at a large cohort of patients who were free of these diseases. 

They did a meta-analysis of a group of 243,611 incident cases of dementia, 31,577 cases of Parkinson’s disease, and 9,247 cases of multiple sclerosis between the years 2001 in 2012. There appeared to be a strong dementia relationship between urban residents who lived in major cities near major traffic roads and who had never moved for a period of years. 

The conclusion of the researchers was that “living close to heavy traffic was associated with a higher incidence of dementia but not with Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis.” 

One pollutant that appears to be evident in many of these studies and it is lead pollution from vehicles. One other problematic pollutant was nitrogen dioxide (NO2), but it is lead that is the greater danger, according to one expert in the field. 

Unlike NO2, lead persists in the human body, with more than 95% of the adult
body burden of lead stored in bones, where it can remain for decades. Stored
lead is mobilised when bone turnover is higher than the normal turnover
rate — ie, in patients with osteoporosis. Consequently, mobilisation of stored
lead coupled with decline of bone mineralisation in elderly Canadian
residents means that their blood lead levels can remain elevated many years
after road-borne lead exposure.Early exposure, therefore, remains with us for a lifetime. 

The evidence regarding children and brain damage, similar to Alzheimer’s related to air pollution, is shocking. If nothing else, it is reasonable to show strong concern for the air we breathe. But pollution may not be confined to lead because plastic rain may also play a role as can the contaminants in the foods we eat. 

Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhD
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

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