PhotoDoctors in the UK treating cognitive decline recently made a startling discovery: their patients are getting younger.

Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia usually show up when people are in their 60s, but doctors providing information for the Young Dementia UK charity say they have begun to treat patients in their 40s and 50s.

Researchers at Bournemouth University believe “modern life” may be mostly to blame. They studied adults in 21 Western countries and found that the problem was most severe in the U.S. They believe that environmental problems like pollution and pesticides could be at fault.

Deaths on the rise

At the same time, deaths resulting from neurological disease are up significantly in adults aged 55-74. For adults 75 and older, the rate has almost doubled in every Western country in just the last 20 years.

In the U.S., neurological disease deaths in men over 75 have nearly tripled and have increased even more in women. For the first time since records began, more elderly American women died of brain disease than cancer.

“The rate of increase in such a short time suggests a silent or even a hidden epidemic, in which environmental factors must play a major part, not just aging," said Colin Pritchard, a professor at Bournemouth University, who led the study. “Modern living produces multi-interactional environmental pollution but the changes in human morbidity, including neurological disease is remarkable and points to environmental influences.”

Hidden epidemic

As a result of the “hidden epidemic,” Prichard says health services are being swamped. He also says neurological diseases are becoming more common on a relative basis because many physical diseases are becoming less common. He does not that there is one big difference, though.

“Crucially it is not just because people are living longer to get diseases they previously would not have lived long enough to develop but older people are developing neurological disease more than ever before,” he said.

Why? Because the world is a very different place, he says.

“The environmental changes in the last 20 years have seen increases in the human environment of petro-chemicals – air transport- quadrupling of motor vehicles, insecticides and rises in background electro-magnetic-field, and so on,” Pritchard said.

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