May 29, 2012

Solvents Linked to Cognitive Problems for the Less-Educated

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- In many cases, work can challenge the brain and stimulate thinking. For the less-educated who work with solvents, however, the opposite might prove true over the course of time.

After a study involving 4,134 people who worked for the French National Gas and Electric Company, a lifetime exposure of four types of solvents- chlorinated solvents, petroleum solvents, and benzene and non-benzene aromatic solvents — resulted in impaired thinking skills after a cognitive test for those who had less than a high school education. Those who had more education were not affected, even after the same amount of solvent exposure.

"People with more education may have a greater cognitive reserve that acts like a buffer allowing the brain to maintain its ability to function in spite of damage," study author Lisa F. Berkman, PhD, of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was quoted as saying.

"This may be because education helps build up a dense network of connections among brain cells."

The participants were an average of 59 years old and 91 % were retired, the majority working for the company their entire career. 58 percent of the participants had less than a high school education. Of those, 32 percent showed cognitive impairment compared to 16 percent of those with more education. Among the less-educated workers, those who were highly exposed to chlorinated and petroleum solvents were 14 percent more likely to have cognitive problems than those with no exposure. People who were highly exposed to benzene were 24 percent more likely to have cognitive problems, and those who were highly exposed to non-benzene aromatic solvents were 36 percent more likely to have cognitive problems.

The study shows the importance of the quality and quantity of education earlier in life, as it could prevent cognitive decline in the future.

"Investment in education could serve as a broad shield against both known and unknown exposures across the lifetime. This is especially important given that some evidence shows that federal levels of permissible exposure for some solvents may be insufficient to protect workers against the health consequences of exposure," said Dr. Berkman.

SOURCE: Neurology, May 2012