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Lead, Ageing and Death

By Ewan MacAulay McDonnell, The LEAD Group Inc
[LID 9496] Updated 4th April 2011

When old people die, who ever asks the question – "Did lead kill this person?"

As you age you become more likely to suffer from heart disease, heart attack, stroke, renal problems, and Alzheimer's disease or tremors but what you may not realise is that these symptoms are connected with having lead in your system.

With so many people having higher blood lead levels in the past than today, it is little wonder that we associate ageing with many of the effects of lead poisoning, but especially:- poor memory and hearing, falls (from loss of balance), reduced sperm count, loss of libido, strokes and heart attacks (from raised blood pressure), tooth decay, and Alzheimer’s disease. It is fair to say that all these effects of lead add up to a reasonable description of what we think of as "normal" ageing and it is certainly time that we measured blood lead levels in older people who display these symptoms before discounting their symptoms as just "a natural part of getting old". (14)

Lead gathers in the body as you are exposed to it over time. There is no safe level of lead within the body and the threshold for safe lead levels has gradually been lowered over the decades as data has improved and further research has been conducted. The US CDC currently lists the threshold as < 10 µg/dL level, however more recent research is showing even levels as low as 2.5 µg/dL have a detrimental health impact, more so than increases from 10-20 µg/dL or 20-30 µg/dL. (16)

According to a recent Archives of Internal Medicine article: "Blood lead and exposure to lead throughout life has also been associated with increased death rates in older people where "after adjustment for potential confounders, individuals with baseline blood lead levels of 20 to 29 µg/dL (1.0-1.4 µmol/L) [two to three times the CDC goal to be below 10 µg/dL, but much less than the level that an Australian worker must be moved off a lead task – 50 µg/dL] had a 46% increase in mortality (all causes), 39% increased circulatory mortality, and 68% increased cancer mortality compared with those with blood lead levels of less than 10 µg/dL (<0.5 µmol/L)." (14)

 In fact a blood lead level of 2 µg/dL has been connected in an American study by the CDC with higher rates of cardiovascular disease. A blood lead level of 3.63 µg/dL or greater was connected with an 89% greater rate of death from heart attack, and a 250% greater chance of stroke (15). A higher rate of Arteriosclerosis has been found in adults with Blood lead levels of greater than 10 µg/dL. (18)

Lead becomes stored within your bones, which acts like a sort of Reservoir. (17) From there, it causes a second round of negative impacts on Haem synthesis, vitamin D metabolism, and kidney function.  Initially Lead is a neurotoxin causing similar symptoms to Alzheimer's disease and for similar reasons and hence is associated with it (12; 3). If you have been exposed to it as a child changes in gene expression will create additional health problems for you later in life, including the build up of proteins in the brain in a pattern similar to Alzheimer's disease (4). Cumulative lead exposure is also linked to poorer performance in learning, memory and visual-motor tasks for older subjects and this negative impact can be exacerbated by stress (20). This may be because early-childhood lead exposure has led to poorer-school performance or because lead may accumulate in the myelin sheath that surrounds some neurons in the brain, connecting it to neuro-degenerative diseases. (19) In one recent study the mean Blood lead level for subjects was 3.5 µg/dL and tibia lead level was 18.7 µg/dL. The higher tibia lead levels were consistently associated with worse cognitive function in tested subjects. (21)

Another neurological disease that may be associated with Lead is Essential Tremor (ET). Essential Tremor is an incurable age-related disease whose symptoms involve tremors of the hands and head. At present its cause is unknown. Laboratory animals and humans exposed to high levels of lead have displayed similar symptoms. Pb blood levels in ET patients have been found to be higher than in controls. ET is a very common neurological disease in subjects over 60, and can be as prevalent as up to 20.5% of the elderly. (17)

As well as Lead speeding up brain ageing (1; 2), as you age your bones demineralise, meaning they release lead back into your blood stream. (13; 8) This means the toxic effect of lead exposure in younger years, such as industrial work dealing with lead substances, such as lead-based paint or fuel containing lead will add to any lead exposure you are currently experiencing and cause a cumulative impact on your health. (16) Adults who have been exposed to lead in the workplace and at home throughout their lives are more susceptible to lead-related health risks such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure (hypertension), stroke, renal failure and osteoporosis. (5; 6; 7; 9; 10)

The implications of lead exposure early in life on menopausal women have also been investigated; indicating that exposure to lead throughout life may result in heightened lead levels in blood throughout menopause. Studies have also found that Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) had a negative effect on blood lead levels, where women using HRT had lower blood lead levels than postmenopausal women who report not using HRT. (4)

There is also a fact-sheet which comprehensively describes the effects of lead poisoning on various groups of people, sorted into ‘children’, ‘prenatal development and reproductive health effects’ and ‘adults’. Listed within these groups are implications of lead poisoning in categories including nervous system, peripheral nervous system, growth and development, cognitive development, behaviour, hearing, sight, movement and muscular, digestive system, renal, blood and circulation, foetal, kidneys, cardiovascular and circulation, intellectual and mental, sensory, bone, muscle and joint and death. Also listed are the effects of lead known from animal studies. This fact sheet can be found at (11)

Sources Cited:

  1. McKinney, Merritt, "Lead Exposure Speeds Up Brain Aging" Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 4836]

  2. Schwartz, BS; Stewart, WF; Bolla, KI; Simon, D; Bandeen-Roche, K; Gordon, B; Links, JM; & Todd, AC, "Past adult lead exposure is associated with longitudinal decline in cognitive function" NEUROLOGY 55: 1144–1150 October (2 of 2) 2000: Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 4838] PDF

  3. - 4/5/00, "Lead Exposure, Inactivity Linked To Alzheimers" Accessed (2013/10/11) [LID: 4058] exposure and alzheimers.htm

  4. Silbergeld, Ellen K, "Menopause And Lead: Consequences And Determinants Of Bone Lead Mobilization - From Women’s Environments & Women’s Health Conference Friday, October 22, 1999" [LID: 5975] 

  5. Chicago Tribune, 20021227, Kotulak, Ronald , "Study links early adult deaths to lead - 30 million in U.S. could be at risk" Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 6915]

  6. Hu, Howard; Aro, Antonio; Payton, Marinelle; Korrick, Susan; Sparrow, David; Weiss, S & Rotnitzky A, "The Relationship Of Bone And Blood Lead To Hypertension - The Normative Aging Study [ABSTRACT]" Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 7052]

  7. Kim, Rokho; Rotnitzky, Andrea; Sparrow, David; Weiss, Scott; Wager, Carrie & Hu, Howard, "A Longitudinal Study Of Low-Level Lead Exposure And Impairment Of Renal Function - The Normative Aging Study [ABSTRACT]" Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 7051];

  8. Hu, Howard, "Harvard University Superfund Basic Research Program - School of Public Health - Project 4 -- Cumulative Lead Exposure and Prospective Change in Cognition among Elderly Men The VA Normative Aging Study" Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 7053]; 

  9. Lead Reference Centre (LRC) - a now defunct part of NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), "How lead affects health" Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 7061]

  10. Democrat & Chronicle, 25/2/02, Wentzel, Michael, "UR [University of Rochester] links childhood lead to osteoporosis" Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 6203]

  11. Vella, Vance; O’Brien, Elizabeth & others, "Health Impacts of Lead Poisoning - A preliminary listing of the health effects & symptoms of lead poisoning" [LID: 1452]

  12. American Academy of Neurology, " Lead Exposure May Increase Risk for Alzheimer’s Accessed (2011/04/04) [LID: 5054]

  13. Balzer, Dr Ben, "Lead Poisoning - [PowerPoint Presentation]" [LID: 4598]

  14. Lustberg, M; Silbergeld, E, "Blood Lead Levels And Mortality. [ABSTRACT]" Source: Arch Intern Med 2002 Nov 25;162(21):2443-9 [LID: 6918] Accessed (2011/04/04)

  15. Hitti, M, Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD "Lead in Blood: Safe levels too high?", Reviewed (2006/09/18) WebMD Medical News [LID:8614] Accessed (2011/04/04)

  16. Schrager, Thomas F. "Is the Center for Disease Control's goal to reduce lead below 10ug/dl blood in all children younger than 72 months by 2010, good enough?" (2006) Cambridge Toxicology Inc [LID: 8777] Accessed (2011/04/04)

  17. Louis E.D. et al “Association between Essential Tremor and Blood Lead Concentration" Environmental Health Perspectives,  Vol 111, No. 14, (2003/11) [LID: 8789] Accessed (2011/04/04)

  18. Navas-Acien, A. "Lead, Cadmium, Smoking, and Increased Risk of Peripheral Arterial Disease", Circulation Online American Heart Association (AHA) Inc. Issue 109 (2004/06/07). [LID: 7392] Accessed (2011/04/04)

  19. Osterweil, N. “Lifetime lead exposure dulls thinking in older adults MedPage Today (2006/09/14) Reviewed by  Zalman, S.[LID: 8681] Accessed (2011/04/04)

  20. Stokstad, E. “Getting the Lead In. Submitted by Gagnon, M. Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative (LDDI) AAMR Weekly Bulletin (2011/04/04) [LID: 8288] Accessed (2006/03/27)

  21. Shih, R. A. et al “Environmental lead exposure and cognitive function in community-dwelling older adults” Neurology (13/09/2006) [LID: 8682] Accessed (2011/04/04)

Chinese 铅,衰老和死亡  PDF version 铅,衰老和死亡
English PDF version Lead, Ageing and Death  

The LEAD Group Inc. Fact Sheet Index

NSW Lead Reference Centre and NSW Government Publications On this site

  1. About the Global Lead Advice and Support Service (GLASS)

  2. Main Sources of Lead

  3. How Would You Know If You or Your Child Was lead poisoned?

  4. Lead aware housekeeping

  5. Ceiling dust & lead poisoning

  6. Is your yard lead safe?

  7. Health Impacts of lead poisoning

  8. Rotary Questionnaire

  9. Lead poisoned Pets and Your Family

  10. Childhood Lead Poisoning Risk Factor Questionnaire

  11. Is Your Child Safe From Lead? - What Can You Do About Lead?

  12. Lead in Drinking Water in Australia

  13. Have We Really Resolved The Lead Issue?

  14. The Importance of the Availability of "Spot Tests" for Lead in Paint

  15. Pregnant or Planning a Pregnancy

  16. Breastfeeding and Lead

  17. Lead in breast milk

  18. Beware The Lead In Lead Lighting

  19. Renting and Lead

  20. What to do if you have too much lead in your tank water

  21. Lead Contamination in Stormwater

  22. Contamination At Shooting Ranges

  23. Banned: Leaded Wick Candles

  24. Lead, Ageing and Death

  25. Metal miniatures: How to minimise the risks of lead poisoning and contamination

  26. 7 Point Plan for the MANAGEMENT OF LEAD by Australian parents and carers

  27. Countries where Leaded Petrol is Possibly Still Sold for Road Use, As at 17th June 2011

  28. Lead Poisoning And The Brain - Cognitive Deficits And Mental Illness

  29. Facts and Firsts of Lead

  30. Lead mining royalties by state and territory

  31. Lead Mining Stewardship - Grey Lead and the Role of The LEAD Group

  32. Preventative Strategies of The LEAD Group

  33. What do Doctors need to do about Lead?

  34. A Naturopath's Experience Of Lead & People With Diagnosed Mental Illness

  35. Case File: Helping Manage Australian Lead in Petrol - How GLASS Works

  36. Glass Web & Service-Users, Experts & Volunteers, by Country; Countries with Leaded Petrol for Road Use & Worst Pollution

  37. Lead in ceiling dust

  38. Lead paint & ceiling dust management - how to do it lead-safely

  39. Esperance parliamentary inquiry follow-up factsheet: Where to from Here??

  40. Broken Hill lead miners factsheet 1893 with Note 20081015

  41. Helping a Doctor Help 35,000 Lead-Poisoned People Around the Lead Smelter at La Oroya in Peru
    Ayuda a un doctor que ayuda 35,000 personas envenenadas por plomo alrededor de la fundidora de plomo en la Oroya-Peru

  42. Fact sheet for Australian toy importers and traders

  43. Iron Nutrition & Lead Toxicity
    Informe de Acciones – Hierro y Plomo en la Nutrición

  44. Sanitarium-Are You getting Enough Iron

  45. Do-It-Yourself-Lead-Safe-Test-Kits-flyer

  46. Blood lead testing: who to test, when, and how to respond to the result

  47. Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to both adults and children

  48. Lead Exposure & Alzheimer’s Disease: Is There A Link?

  49. In CHINA - Blood lead testing: who to test, when, and how to respond to the result

  50. Why you should have your ceiling dust removed before you take advantage of the Australian government's Energy Efficient Homes Package: Insulation Program

  51. Alperstein et al Lead Alert - A Guide For Health Professionals 1994

  52. Ceiling Dust WorkCover Guide Lee Schreiber Final Nov 1999

  53. What can I do about climate change AND lead?

  54. The Need for Expert Clinical Assessments in Diagnosis Of Heavy Metal Poisoning

  55. Why you should have your ceiling dust removed before you have insulation installed

  56. Thirty Thought-Starters on Ceiling Void Dust in Homes

  57. Pectin: Panacea for both lead poisoning and lead contamination

  58. Nutrients that reduce lead poisoning June 2010

  59. Lead poisoning and menopause

  60. Fact sheet For Schoolkids From Professor Knowlead About Lead

  61. Prevention of Exposure to Lead at Work in Indonesia

  62. Mencegah kontak dengan timbal di tempat kerja di Indonesia

  63. How to Protect Your Family from Lead in Indonesia

  64. Bagaimana melindungi keluargamu dari timbal di Indonesia

  65. Cigarette Smoking & Lead Toxicity
     صحيفة معلومات: التدخين والتسمم بالرصاص

  66. Medical Evaluation Questionnaire For Occupational Lead Exposure

  67. Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to children

  68. Dangers of a blood lead level above 2 µg/dL and below 10 µg/dL to adults

  69. Biosolids used as fertilizer in China and other countries

  70. What are the lead poisoning risks of a lead pellet, bullet or shot lodged in the body?

  71. Alcohol’s link to higher lead and iron levels

  72. USA Case Definition of Adult (including Occupational) & Child Elevated Blood Lead Levels (EBLL)

  73. Low Level Lead Exposure Harms Children - A Renewed Call for Primary Prevention

  74. Occupational Health & Safety Fact Sheet Dangers of lead for roofers

  75. Let’s Make Leaded Petrol History - Let’s Make Leaded Gasoline History

  76. Lead, Your Health & the Environment. Available in Arabic, Chinese, English, Korean, Macedonian, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese 

  77. Lead Safe Housekeeping

  78. Old Lead Paint

  79. Working safely with lead

  80. A Renovator's Guide To The Dangers Of Lead (Brochure 30 pages)

  81. A Guide For Health Care Professionals (Brochure 34 pages)

  82. A Guide To Keeping Your Family Safe From Lead (Brochure 20 pages)

  83. Lead Hazard Management In Children's Services (Brochure 15 pages)

  84. A Guide To Dealing With Soil That Might Be Lead-Contaminated

  85. Exposure Assessment: Lead Neurotoxicity - Is the Center for Disease Control's goal to reduce lead below 10 µg/dl blood in all children younger than 72 months by 2010, good enough?

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