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New global health project explores impacts of metals exposure on aging

In Bangladesh, SPH’s Maria Argos, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and associate dean for global health, has researched how high levels of arsenic in drinking water, consumed early in life, can lead to a host of health challenges later in life.

Now, a new global health project funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by Argos will expand on this work, exploring the impact of exposure to a range of metals on biological aging and cardiometabolic traits in adolescents.

“As we gain a deeper understanding of whether early life exposure has lifelong consequences, this will help us evaluate health trajectories across sensitive periods of life, including childhood and adolescence,” Argos said.

The project will examine exposure to four metals:  arsenic, primarily from drinking water; mercury from food sources; cadmium from tobacco smoke exposure; and lead exposures, which may be caused by old electrical appliances slowly degrading in communities.

Adolescents in the study will be evaluated for a cardiovascular health score.  Generally, young people are at very low risk for heart diseases, but adolescents with heart health issues show the greatest risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.  The study will examine cholesterol levels, blood pressure and other measures to determine the score.

Changes in biological aging will be measured by telomere length and epigenetic measures.  The shortening of telomeres as well as epigenetic clock measures are associated with biological aging, and the study will seek to explore why some individuals might be aging faster or slower than their chronological age.

To account for varying levels of exposures to different metals, and the possible mixing of metals, Argos will rely on statistical methods to identify mixture effects.

Argos stresses that young people in Bangladesh may experience other exposure sources as well – soil contamination from industry, pesticides from local agriculture and more.

We are very limited in our understanding of the molecular epidemiology of metals,” Argos said. “If we can develop a general understanding of these mechanisms, potentially we could develop therapeutic treatments for people already affected to reduce risk for disease progression later in life.

Maria Argos, PhD  |  Associate Professor of Epidemiology & Associate Dean of Global Health

Bangladesh is a unique nation to conduct this study in that its citizens are known to face high levels of exposure to metals.  Argos says the results are applicable elsewhere, including in the United States, where the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead as four of the top ten toxic substances affecting the American population.

“We know there are regions in the U.S. that are proximal to superfund sites or other industrial areas that have similar patterns of exposure,” Argos said. “This study will help inform the hypothesis-driven trends we want to look at in lower-exposed populations.”

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