Summary: Neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have increased significantly in the last few decades. Researchers think this rise cannot be explained solely based on genetics or population aging. It appears that environmental pollutants are playing a significant role in the rise of neurodegenerative disorders. Humans are now being regularly exposed to 80,000 chemicals, and the number is rising. There is an urgent need to study how these pollutants cause neurodegeneration and poor brain health, especially focusing on environment-gene interaction.
Understanding the cause of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is quite challenging. What has constantly perplexed researchers is the significant rise of these issues. Just imagine that Alzheimer’s was among rare diseases just a century back. However, now Alzheimer’s is among the leading causes of disability and death, affecting millions each year.
The risk of Alzheimer’s in some people can be explained by genetics and effect on brain health. However, there are many things that genetics cannot explain. For example, genetics cannot explain why so many people are now living with Alzheimer’s compared to just 50 years ago. It is evident that the human genetic pool has not changed much in the last 50 years.
If we look back in time, it is easy to see two things that have changed drastically in a century. These are lifestyle choices and environment1. Some health experts think that environmental changes have contributed to the rise of these issues. For example, cars were rare a century ago, there were very few polluting industries, and even farmers were not using pesticides. However, now everything is happening on a massive scale. For example, some cities now have more cars than people.
There is a reason for renewed interest in exploring the role of environmental changes in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative disorders. A new field of science called exposomics can help better understand the role of chemical exposure in disease development.
In a recent annual meeting of the American Neurological Association, 2022, the focus would be on discussing how exposome is deriving neurological disorders.
Here it is vital to understand that concerns are not just about industrial pollutants or pesticides. Chemicals are just everywhere. They are in the air, water, and even food. What is worrisome is the sheer number of chemicals that the human body, especially brain health is exposed to. Some experts estimated that there are nearly 80,000 toxic chemicals in the environment. This only highlights the severity and scale of the problem.
Understanding how chemicals increase the risk of neurodegeneration is quite challenging. One way of understanding this is by comparing the risk of neurodegeneration in people exposed to a higher level of pollutants than others. However, things are not as simple. Some people do not develop neurological conditions even when exposed to contaminants due to their genetic make.
Hence, it is vital to understand the gene-environment interaction. Further researchers noticed that it is not just about pollutants. There are severe concerns regarding the increasing use of new kinds of nanomaterials. Manufacturers study their physical properties and introduce them to the industry. However, it is really concerning that we know very little about how these nanomaterials may interact with the human body. There are almost no studies regarding their safety in humans. Thus, the industry may be solving its problem, but at the same time, it might be creating other issues.
It is very clear that the rise of neurodegenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s cannot be explained by genetics or the aging population. Instead, there is something more sinister happening in the background. Exposure to different chemicals is not just high, it is rising at an alarming pace.
Of course, doctors have long known the role of environmental factors in disease development. They have traditionally asked their patients about where they work and live to assess the risk. However, even after identifying the risk factors, there isn’t much that doctors can do except react to these issues. It means that there is a need for more research into the subject and an urgency to educate the people and society and make significant changes.
The Bottom Line
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By Gurpreet Singh Padda, MD, MBA, MHP