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Stony Brook Study: 9/11 Responders Show Premature Brain-Disease Signs

Chief Leader - September 06, 2016

by SARAH DORSEY

The toxic dust from the World Trade Center’s destruction ravaged the lungs of many a first-responder. It wreaked havoc on digestive systems and sparked cancers in thousands.

At Risk for Alzheimer’s

Now some scientists believe it may also be affecting their brains.

A Stony Brook University study examining 818 first-responders enrolled in the Federal World Trade Center Health Program found that a “staggering” number of them—about 1 in 8—had cognitive impairment. Cognitive impairment is a major risk- factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

The study’s authors believe that the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among 9/11 responders may be triggering the impairment, and that those who had flashbacks or nightmares about the tragedy were especially likely to show symptoms.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the association with PTSD and major depressive disorder (MDD) with cognitive impairment, and to do so in a large group of civilian World Trade Center responders without head trauma,” said lead author Sean A. Clouston, an Assistant Professor in the Public Health Department.

Between January 2014 and April 2015, the research­ers administered a short test known as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment to responders attending Stony Brook clinics for their medical monitoring under the WTC Health Program. The exam measured their reasoning, concentration, prob­lem-solving and memory. They were also screened by psychologists for PTSD and major depression.

Premature Danger Signs

Participants were just 53 years old on average, but nearly 13 percent of them showed signs of cognitive impairment, sometimes known as CI. About 1 percent had scores suggesting that they already had dementia.

The cognitive issues were linked with PTSD and depression, and they were especially associated with one common symptom of PTSD: reliving the harrowing experience, through flashbacks or nightmares. Those who re-experience their trauma in this way react physically as well as emotionally to their memories and often have disturbed sleep. Sleep problems have been linked to cognitive decline and dementia.

The authors said they did not expect such high rates of CI given the responders’ ages and educational and occupational histories. Mr. Clouston called for more research into the re-experiencing of traumatic memories. Research­ers noted that if all 33,000 responders registered with the WTC Health Program showed the same rates of CI, then between 3,740 and 5,300 people might be showing the decline. Between 240 and 810 might have dementia.

“This study indicates that the effects of the exposure to the World Trade Center attacks on the responders may be more pervasive and insidious than originally thought,” co-author Dr. Benjamin J. Luft, Director of the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program, said in a statement. “The results only support the wisdom of the passage of the Zadroga legislation, which provides continued monitoring and treatment of diseases caused by these exposures.”