TUESDAY, May 29 (HealthDay News) -- People with less than a high
school education who work with solvents may have problems with
their thinking skills later in life, according to a study of people
In the study, researchers from Harvard University noted that
people with more education did not experience the same types of
issues with their thinking, or so-called "cognitive," skills, even
if they had the same amount of exposure to these chemicals.
"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 Berkman, of
Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., said in news release from
the American Academy of Neurology. "This may be because education
helps build up a dense network of connections among brain
In conducting the study, the investigators followed more than
4,100 people who worked at the French national gas and electric
company. While working at the company, the participants were
exposed to four types of solvents: chlorinated solvents, petroleum
solvents, benzene and non-benzene aromatic solvents.
The researchers assessed the workers' lifetime exposure to these
solvents and tested their thinking skills when they were an average
of 59 years old. By this time, 91 percent of the study participants
Most of those studied worked at the company for their entire
career and 58 percent had less than a high school education. Of
those without a high school diploma, the study revealed 32 percent
had problems with their thinking skills. In contrast, only 16
percent of those with more education had similar thinking problems,
the findings showed.
The study, published in the May 29 issue of
Neurology, also found that high levels of exposure to
chlorinated and petroleum solvents was associated with 14 percent
greater risk for thinking problems among the less-educated workers,
compared to their peers with no exposure.
Moreover, the less-educated workers with a high level of
exposure to benzene were 24 percent more likely to have problems
with their thinking skills, and those with significant exposure to
non-benzene aromatic solvents were 36 percent more likely to have
"These findings suggest that efforts to improve quality and
quantity of education early in life could help protect people's
cognitive abilities later in life," Berkman said. "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."
While the study uncovered an association between education
level, solvent exposure and thinking skills, it did not prove a
The U.S. Department of Labor has more about the health effects
exposure to solvents.
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