January 27, 2023

Self-proclaimed “data nerd” Rob Warren linked US Census data and information from University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to create the first assessment of the long-term effects of lead exposure in children.

Warren, and professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and a group of colleagues recently published a study in the journal Scientific achievements. It was found that adults exposed to lead in drinking water because children performed worse on HRS cognitive assessments between the ages of 50 and 60.


Putting these two datasets together helped reveal an important link between lead exposure and cognitive impact that no one had done before.

And the worst consequences could be yet to come, as it will be several years before the generation with the highest levels of lead exposure is old enough to participate in HRS.

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“We haven’t seen a real impact yet,” Warren said.


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MinnPost: What interested you in this line of research?

Rob Warren

Rob Warren: I do a fair amount of research on how early life experiences affect health and long-term outcomes later in life. We are all aware of the short-term negative effects of childhood lead exposure. But what about the long-term effects of childhood lead exposure β€” if a person is exposed to lead in drinking water as a child, how will that affect them decades later in terms of cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia? This question fascinates me.


MP: Putting this information together required linking several important pieces of data. How did you do this?

RW: To do this research, you need studies where you can accurately determine where children lived, the level of lead they were exposed to in their drinking water, and then determine its impact on their cognition later. Only recently have we had a representative sample of Americans that we have been able to study.

MP: How did you define this representative sample?


RW: I’m a data freak. Here’s an important fact: US Census data becomes public after 72 years. We just had a portion of the 1950 census published on April 1 of this year. Now everything since 1950 is in the public domain: all names, addresses, education, income. You have complete information for the 1940s, and now the 1950s have just been published. This project starts from the 1940s in the USA.

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What we know about cognition later in life comes from research on older people. The largest study is HRS. They interview older people, a random sample of people aged 50 and over. They interview them every two years until they die. They have been doing this for a long time. We don’t know anything about these people before the age of 50. We do not know where they lived when they were children.

But we were able to work with HRS to find participants and then find those census participants when they were children in the 1940s. These people are now 60, 70, 80, 90 years old. Now, with the help of publicly available census data, we know exactly where they lived as children. And from HRS, we have accurate measurements of their levels of dementia and other health risks. All this work of linking HRS to the census is done in a highly secure computing environment so no one can ever access their information.

MP: How did combining these two sets of data allow you to study lead exposure in children?

RW: In the 1940s, most municipal water supplies had lead. We know how much. For every municipal water system in America, there are good records of which pipes run into each person’s home. We also know what is pH levels in water we. It turns out that if you had lead pipes, it was okay, as long as the water in your area wasn’t too acidic or too alkaline. For all of these HRS contributors, we know what the pipes in their cities were made of, as well as the pH level of their water. So we know if their drinking water was contaminated with lead.

MP: What have you learned about the impact of lead-contaminated drinking water on general consciousness and long-term risk of dementia?

RW: Participants in the HRS study take cognitive tests every two years. We first see them when they are well over 50, and then every two years. We see how they work on certain tests. The bad news is that as we age, cognitive ability declines for everyone. But people who are exposed to lead as children start below their peers by around age 60. If you weren’t exposed to lead as a child, you still drop it, but don’t reach problem levels until much later. People exposed in childhood reach this point years earlier than those who were not exposed.

MP: Has your research shown that socioeconomic factors play a role in lead exposure and dementia risk?

RW: Not really. In the 1940s, public health knew little about the problem of lead exposure. There was nothing you could do about it. And nobody did anything. They didn’t have Brittas or lead filtration systems. Everyone in Minneapolis drank water: rich, poor, whites, blacks, immigrants, non-immigrants.

Since everyone in the city drank the same water, it was more fair. Nowadays, if you were going to do this, you would find that richer people can afford to have water filters, or they only drink bottled water, or do other things to avoid lead ingestion, or they were able to force city ​​to replace the water pipes in their part of the city.

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MP: Because they are now aware of the risks, the communities have reduced the levels of lead in water and air. Will certain generations be more exposed to lead than others?

RW: If you look at how much lead children would be exposed to, based on what we know about leaded gasoline, lead paint, and water systems, the people who would be most exposed to lead are people who were children in the 1960s. x and 70s. . Then people were much more likely to drive cars with leaded gasoline. This was just before we got rid of the lead paint. So these are the decades when children were most exposed to lead. If you count, this group is not yet old enough to suffer from dementia.

MP: You seem to be talking about members of Generation X.

RW: Massive costs to public health and people are yet to come. I am 53. These people are my age. People who were most exposed to lead in childhood have not yet experienced the full effects of this exposure. The first time I did this as a presentation, everyone in the room who was a child at the time raised their hands. This led to an awkward silence.

MP: Is there anything a person can do to limit children’s exposure to lead in the future?

RW: When you are exposed to lead as a child, some lead is naturally filtered out of your body. Lead and calcium mix in the body, so large amounts of lead accumulate in your bones until you’re old enough to develop osteoporosis or other diseases that lead to bone loss. That’s when the lead comes back into your blood. If people were exposed to lead as children, there are things like certain medications and resistance exercises they can do to prevent bone loss, which will eventually prevent lead from recirculating in their blood. If lead isn’t circulating in the blood, it won’t hurt anything.

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