Human predisposition to cognitive impairment and its relation with environmental exposure to potentially toxic elements

Environ Geochem Health. 2018 Oct;40(5):1767-1784. doi: 10.1007/s10653-017-9928-3. Epub 2017 Mar 9.


New lines of evidence suggest that less than 10% of neurodegenerative diseases have a strict genetic aetiology and other factors may be prevalent. Environmental exposures to potentially toxic elements appear to be a risk factor for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and sclerosis diseases. This study proposes a multidisciplinary approach combining neurosciences, psychology and environmental sciences while integrating socio-economic, neuropsychological, environmental and health data. We present the preliminary results of a neuropsychological assessment carried out in elderly residents of the industrial city of Estarreja. A battery of cognitive tests and a personal questionnaire were administered to the participants. Multivariate analysis and multiple linear regression analysis were used to identify potential relationships between the cognitive status of the participants and environmental exposure to potentially toxic elements. The results suggest a relationship between urinary PTEs levels and the incidence of cognitive disorders. They also point towards water consumption habits and profession as relevant factors of exposure. Linear regression models show that aluminium (R 2 = 38%), cadmium (R 2 = 11%) and zinc (R 2 = 6%) are good predictors of the scores of the Mini-Mental State Examination cognitive test. Median contents (µg/l) in groundwater are above admissible levels for drinking water for aluminium (371), iron (860), manganese (250), and zinc (305). While the World Health Organization does not provide health-based reference values for aluminium, results obtained from this study suggest that it may have an important role in the cognitive status of the elderly. Urine proved to be a suitable biomarker of exposure both to elements with low and high excretion rates.

Keywords: Environmental exposure; Groundwater; Neurodegenerative diseases; Potentially toxic elements; Urine.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / chemically induced*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / epidemiology
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / psychology
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Female
  • Groundwater / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Metals, Heavy / toxicity
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Portugal / epidemiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical