April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month – The Environmental Link

Probably the most famous person with this disease is Michael J Fox, who starred on television in the Family Ties series and in the Back To The Future movies. To his credit, he started the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has funded $450 million in research for Parkinson’s disease in the past 14 years.

To kick off Parkinson’s Awareness month in Toronto, former CBC Metro Morning host Andie Barry was interviewed on CBC radio. He also has Parkinson’s and described his experience after having received a treatment called Deep Brain Stimulation. After the electrical stimulation was turned on, he stood up and immediately went from shuffling approximately 2 inches per step, to walking normally down the hall. Deep Brain Stimulation is a procedure in which an electrode is placed in the brain and attached to a computerized generator of constant pulses of electrical charges. This electrial stimulation seems to restore normal brain rhythms, allowing the restoration of more normal movements. How it works is unknown, but Barry described it as “fabulous, a miracle …. liberating, unbelievable!”

Parkinson’s is a neurological, movement disorder. There is progressive degeneration, meaning that there is a relentless decline of function, as brain cells deteriorate and die. It is also strongly linked to declining cognition and the development of dementia. Unfortunately, whether we use medications or the high tech electrical stimulation, we don’t cure the disease and we can’t replace those dead neurons. So we just treat the symptoms. We can improve quality of life, but we don’t know how to interfere with the mechanism of the disease. The prognosis of Parkinson’s is that it gets worse.

Even more disturbing is that the burden of this neurodegenerative disease is increasing at an alarming rate. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of deaths attributed to Parkinson’s disease more than doubled, and years lived with disability have increased by more than 70% over the same time period.

The rapidly rising numbers in just 20 years strongly implicate environmental factors and the accumulating evidence implicates pesticides, solvents, heavy metals and other pollutants. Chemical pollutants put an extra burden on the cells’ detoxification systems, and people who are genetically poor detoxifiers are more likely to develop Parkinson’s.

As discussed in chapter 15 in 12,000 Canaries Can’t Be Wrong, the changes leading to the malfunction and cell death found in all neurodegenerative disorders are because of the build up of toxins in cells, which can be due to too much pollution exposure, poor ability to detoxify, or both.

Autopsies performed on young individuals living in highly polluted cities who died accidently or by suicide show elevated markers of neurodegenerative disease. Animal studies demonstrate that various components of outdoor air pollution, such as diesel exhaust and ozone, can cause the pathological changes in the brain seen in Parkinson’s. So can some pesticides and industrial solvents.

Industry has a history of developing miracle products and by-products without appropriate testing for safety, which are carelessly and continuously tossed into the environment until there is finally enough evidence of significant damage to legally ban them. For example, there is compelling evidence that higher levels of  organochlorine pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the brain are associated with Parkinson’s, especially in women. These latter chemicals were widely used as coolants and lubricants in transformers and capacitors, in hydraulic fluids and other electrical equipment, and as additives to paints, oils, joint caulking, and floor tiles. More than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the United States before production was banned in 1979.  But these chemicals are very persistent in the environment around the world; they have accumulated in wildlife and up the food chain. And the decline of concentrations found in the human population has been very slow.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) have replaced PCBs as additive flame retardants in the manufacturing and insulation of electronic equipment, and they are found in polyurethane foam used in carpeting, furniture cushions and home insulation. They are also found in 99% of the population, and recent evidence suggests that they may also be neurotoxic in the same area of the brain as PCBs. Their major source is indoor air.

We need to consider prevention as a new strategy to tackle neurodegenerative diseases. We can begin by decreasing chemical exposures, starting with ventilating our homes with an air exchanger, and filtering the incoming air with a HEPA filter. We can reduce our body burden of pollutants by exercising, sweating, and losing weight if it is too high. In fact, fat is where we store pollutants that we can’t eliminate right away, and being overweight is now being considered as a risk factor for developing Parkinson’s. If you are considering diet, take note that studies have found that high intake of fruits, vegetables and fish reduces the risk of developing Parkinson’s and may even slow the progression of the disease. Mediterranean, vegetarian and paleolithic diets all help to lose weight and are potentially neuroprotective for Parkinson’s because of their emphasis on fruits and vegetables. Increasing soy in the diet may be neuroprotective for post-menopausal women because of its estrogenic effect.

It’s Parkinson’s Awareness month. Be more than aware – do something.

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