Dementia affects millions of people worldwide and in the US, there are presently an estimated five million people suffering from age-related dementia. If you are in America and you are over the age of 85, you have a one in two chance of developing some sort of dementia. It is the sixth leading cause of death. In 2015, nearly one in five Medicare dollars will be spent on dementia and Alzheimer’s will cost $226 billion. By 2050, that cost is expected to rise to $1.1 trillion. It’s a terrifying fact.
Dementia is an umbrella term for disorders of mental processes caused by brain diseases or injury. There are a number of different types of dementia but by far the most prevalent and most well-known is Alzheimer’s, which currently accounts for around 70% of all dementia diagnoses. What’s worrying is that dementia diagnoses are increasing as the population ages, as are deaths from neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. What’s more worrying, though, is that dementia is affecting individuals at a younger and younger age.
Dementia and the Youth of Today
Whilst previously, ‘early-onset dementia’ referred to people in their mid to late 60s, it is now starting to refer to people diagnosed as young as 30 and 40. That’s a frightening concept, and whilst some claim that it’s the result of living longer and being better at curing other diseases (because, they claim, everybody has to die of something), Colin Pritchard of Bournemouth University in the UK is not so sure. Pritchard and his team of researchers examined the mortality data from the World Health Organization and looked at the changing pattern of neurological deaths across 21 western countries, from as far back as 1979. What they discovered was startling.
Not only is the onset of dementia starting approximately ten years earlier than it was in 1979, but deaths from neurological diseases have increased significantly. “For the first time since records began,” Pritchard writes, “more US women over 75 are dying of brain disease than cancer.” In fact, in every single country they studied, neurological deaths have increased and in some cases, even trebled.
Whilst some may argue that this is all the result of the aging population, Pritchard suggests not. He claims that the spike in diagnoses, along with the increased early-onset, is too quick and too large to be simply waved away by an aging population and better medical care. That’s why he and his team argue that there must be environmental factors.
In fact, Pritchard writes that the increase in dementia correlates with an increase in certain modern developments. Road and air travel have quadrupled during the time frame used for the study. There has been a distinct and enormous rise in background radiation as a result of the increased use of technological devices and wireless technology. Diets have progressively got worse and have become highly processed. Pesticides are widely used and we ingest more chemicals and organophosphates than ever before. Whilst all these may seem minor on their own, put them all together and Pritchard claims they can and will have a huge impact on neurological health.
Type 3 Diabetes
There’s evidence there to support the study too. As far back as 2005, Alzheimer’s has been considered a third type of diabetes because of the way that increased blood sugar levels can affect the brain; and if anything can define modern living, it is the huge increase in sugar consumption. Dr. Paul Schulz of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston explains that the enzymes our bodies use to lower blood sugar levels are also used to lower amyloid, a protein that has a high instance in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers. When the enzymes are busy fighting elevated sugar levels, they are unable to lower amyloid levels.
In a similar way, when the cells in the brain become insulin resistant, it can lead to memory loss, disorientation, and even loss of personality aspects, and these are typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s. In fact, diabetes sufferers are twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s than non-diabetes sufferers. This is not, of course, to say that diabetes causes Alzheimer’s but rather, they have the same root cause and it serves to prove that a modern diet certainly has links to the onset of dementia.
Amyloid, the protein found in the brains of dementia patients, is not only affected by blood sugar levels. Levels of beta-amyloid in the brain tend to be higher amongst residents of highly polluted cities which suggests that air pollution (another seemingly unavoidable aspect of modern life) also has links to dementia. Indeed, there is mounting evidence to suggest that air pollution is having an increasingly negative effect on our neurological health, and when around 46 million Americans are exposed to pollution levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, that’s a poignant link.
Research shows that long-term exposure to air pollution increases cognitive decline and as a result, can lead to dementia. In a four-year study, scientists looked at the effects of pollution in 19,000 women living in areas of differing air quality. They discovered that the higher the pollution levels of their residential area, the lower the women scored on memory and thinking tests. They concluded, then, that exposure to high levels of air pollution was the equivalent to two years’ worth of brain-function decline and could eventually lead to even earlier onset of dementia.
The evidence doesn’t end there either. In another study, brain autopsies of people who had lived in highly polluted areas showed high levels of pollutions actually in the brain and with it, the corresponding brain trauma. The same study looked at the brains of the living from the same areas and discovered elevated levels of brain disease and mental decline. Scientists claim, then, that there is a clear link between air quality and dementia.
With evidence like this, it’s hard to ignore the potentially devastating effect that modern life could be having on us. Perhaps, as some argue, early-onset dementia really could be a result of living longer or even of doctors making better diagnoses but it’s impossible to ignore the data. Maybe early-onset dementia isn’t directly caused by modern life but the indicators are certainly there and they clearly have an effect on our brains. Of course, as Pritchard says in his original article, this is not about putting an end to modern advances but rather, it’s about making them safer. How we do that isn’t clear yet but one thing is obvious: something must be done.
 Emily Willingham, 2015, Essential Facts About Alzheimer’s Disease [online]. Available at: http://www.everydayhealth.com/news/10-essential-facts-about-alzheimers-disease/?xid=fb_EH_sf, accessed 08/16/2015
 Aaron Reuben, Does Air Pollution Cause Dementia? [online]. Available at: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/05/air-pollution-dementia-alzheimers-brain, accessed 08/16/2015
 Colin Pritchard, 08/07/2015, Why Modern Life is Making Dementia in Your 40s More Likely [online]. Available at: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/07/modern-life-dementia-40s-neurological-disease?CMP=fb_gu, accessed 08/16/2015
 Emily Willingham, op. cit.
 Aaron Reuben, op. cit.
 ALZinfor.org, 2015, Air Pollution May Raise Dementia Risk, [online]. Available at: https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/air-pollution-raise-dementia-risk/, accessed 08/16/2015
 Aaron Reuben, op. cit.
Does modern life cause early-onset dementia? by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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