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9/11 First Responders Have Higher Odds for Alzheimer's: Study

HealthDay News
by -- Serena McNiff
Updated: Jul 28th 2020

new article illustration

TUESDAY, July 28, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- First responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks appear to be at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease and dementia, new research suggests.

The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mild thinking impairments among them is well-known, and now two studies from Stony Brook University in New York have identified changes in their brains similar to those in dementia patients.

"The environmental exposures and psychological pressures experienced by responders during 9/11 and its aftermath has had an insidious effect on their health and well-being," said Dr. Benjamin Luft, director of the Stony Brook World Trade Center Health and Wellness Program.

"Now nearly 20 years post-9/11, clinicians who care for these individuals are seeing more patients who are showing signs of cognitive disorders and possible dementia," he said in a university news release.

One of the two studies, published recently in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment and Disease Monitoring, examined brain scans from first responders to the attacks on New York City's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Scans included former workers with and without symptoms of thinking and memory problems.

What researchers saw closely resembled scans of patients with Alzheimer's or dementia. Many of the first responders had a deterioration in gray matter rarely seen in their age group. Those studied were 45 to 65 years of age.

While gray matter thinning was much more extensive in first responders with existing impairments, those without impaired thinking skills also showed signs of brain degeneration.

"While there are many reasons for cognitive decline because of brain changes, the loss of gray matter in the brain is one of the most concerning and can be measured by cortical thickness," said study lead author Sean Clouston, associate professor of family, population and preventive medicine.

Clouston added that the gray matter loss is "a possible indicator of early-stage dementia with possible early-onset dementia likely to occur for a portion of these individuals at midlife."

In a separate study, a second Stony Brook team led by Luft analyzed blood samples from almost 200 first responders (average age: 55) with PTSD or impaired memory and thinking skills.

The researchers found abnormalities in their blood proteins that are consistent with Alzheimer's and related diseases of the brain.

This study is scheduled to be published in the journal Translational Psychiatry. Both studies were presented Tuesday at an online conference of the Alzheimer's Association.

"Findings from our new studies provide data for the first time that support the idea that this population of patients who have cognitive impairment not only have psychological problems such as PTSD but may be at high risk for neurodegenerative disorders, a possibility that needs immediate and continued investigation," Luft said.

More information

There's more about first responders and Alzheimer's at the Alzheimer's Association.