Brain diseases treble in 20 years, says new report

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Deaths from brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease have soared in the past two decades, a study has found. Researchers are blaming the increase on higher levels of pesticides, industrial chemicals, car exhaust and other pollutants.

A report on the study by a Southampton University team has appeared in the journal Public Health. It finds that dementia rates have trebled in men and increased by 90 per cent among women.

In the late 1970s, there were about 3,000 deaths a year from brain diseases in England and Wales. At the end of the last decade, that figure had risen to 10,000.

The study examined rates of the diseases in much of the Western world from 1979 to 1997. "This has really scared me," Professor Colin Pritchard, who led the study, told The Observer. "These are nasty diseases: people are getting more of them and they are starting earlier. We have to look at the environment and ask ourselves what we are doing."

Cases of Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease increased by 50 per cent - similar to that of cancer cases over a similar period. However, the increase was generally lower in Japan, leading to speculation that diet could also be a factor.

"There's no single cause ... and most of the time we have no studies on all the multiple interactions of the combinations on the environment," Professor Pritchard said.

The researchers said their figures took into account the fact diagnoses may have improved and that people were living longer.