Cognitive dysfunction and disability in geriatric veterans with self- reported intolerance to environmental chemicals

Iris R. Bell, Michele E. Walsh, Anita Goss, Jane Gersmeyer, Gary E. Schwartz, Philip Kanof

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


The symptom of sensitivity or intolerance to low levels of environmental chemicals (CI) is a characteristic of several clinical conditions, such as multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia (FM), and the 'Persian Gulf Syndrome.' Lesser degrees of CI also occur in 15-30% of non-clinical populations. The present study examined the prevalence and concomitant health patterns of CI in elderly veterans in a VA primary care medical clinic (N = 160, primarily men). Thirty-seven percent of the sample endorsed the screening question asking whether or not they considered themselves 'especially sensitive to certain chemicals'. The group with CI reported a significantly higher rate of physical disability and increased susceptibility to becoming sick. The CI group reported significantly decreased rates of current cigarette smoking and alcohol use. Those with and those without CI did not differ in level of depression or in past occupational chemical exposures. However, the CI group scored significantly lower on a screening test for cognitive dysfunction, including a verbal memory performance pattern consistent with early dementia. When the groups were subdivided into individuals high and low in depression, the depressives without CI reported the highest rate of prior occupational exposure to pesticides. The subgroup who had both CI and depression performed most poorly on the attention/concentration screening test. Taken together, the data suggest that CI as a symptom is extremely common in older male veterans and may be a marker for increased risk of further cognitive decline and/or loss of functional independence. However, the role of occupational chemical exposures in initiating CI in these non-MCS patients is unclear and requires additional study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-42
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997


  • Activities of daily living
  • Attention and concentration
  • Chemical sensitivity and intolerance
  • Dementia
  • Frailty
  • Geriatrics
  • Late life depression
  • Memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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