Lead, Ageing and Death
By Alycia Bailey
Following absorption of lead into the bloodstream, the body stores lead in bone and as we age the bone lead stores can be returned to the blood enabling the lead to do more damage (13; 8). Lead released from the bones adds to the lead currently being absorbed from the environment and recirculates via the blood stream for a second round of negative impacts on haem synthesis, vitamin D metabolism, kidney function etc. Lead speeds up brain ageing (1; 2) and has been found to be associated with Alzheimers disease (dementia) (12; 3).
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, 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".
When old people die, who ever asks the question – "Did lead kill this person?" 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 current goal that all Australians be below 10 µg/dL, but much less than the level that an worker must be moved off a lead task – 50 µg/dL] had 46% increased all-cause, 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)
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 function 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 www.lead.org.au/fs/fst7.html. (11)
The LEAD Group Inc. Fact Sheet Index
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Updated 01 May 2014