Most of the research involving 9/11 responders focuses on physical health problems such as cancer and respiratory disorders. A new study, however, suggests that rescue and recovery workers may also be at increased risk for cognitive impairment, a leading risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Individuals with cognitive impairment have problems with memory and concentration. They are often unable to learn new information and may struggle with everyday routines.
According to a new study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment and Disease Monitoring, a significant proportion of 9/11 responders have cognitive impairment. Furthermore, these individuals are particularly young for suffering cognitive impairment. Generally, cognitive impairment is detected in older adults, usually aged 70 and older. “These numbers are staggering, considering that the average age of responders during the study was 53,” said lead author Sean A. Clouston, an assistant professor of public health.
The study was conducted using the Stony Brook University World Trade Center Program. Nearly all 818 participants are Long Island residents. Among them, 13 percent (104 people) exhibit definite evidence of cognitive impairment. Additionally, 1.2 percent (10 people) possibly already have dementia.
Researchers found that the cognitive impairment was most common among responders who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is most often diagnosed in veterans who experienced war tragedies. It causes flashbacks and nightmares. “We know the PTSD is World Trade Center-related and that it started for most of them in 2002 — the flashbacks and nightmares,” Clouston said according to Newsday.
PTSD increased the risk of cognitive impairment, but it was not the only factor. Responders with a history of major depressive disorder were also more likely to be cognitively impaired.
Dr. Jacqueline Moline, director of the Queens World Trade Center Health Program who was not involved in the study, said “I think it’s valuable that this is being highlighted in a group of individuals who otherwise were very healthy prior to 9/11, but who now are still suffering the aftereffects of their exposure,”
Moline, who is the former head of the WTC program at Mount Sinai, also commented “This tells us that if you have patients who have PTSD for any reason you should be on the lookout for cognitive impairment,”
The WTC Health Program and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund were reauthorized at the end of last year. More than 33,000 responders are enrolled in the health program so far. If the statistics in the study are indicative of the whole group, it could mean that 3,740 to 5,300 responders may be at risk of cognitive impairment and an estimated 240 to 810 could develop dementia, according to Clouston.