He Spent Weeks on the Pile After 9/11. What Did It Do to His Brain?

The 'Washington Post' looks at cognitive decline among first responders
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 11, 2021 9:15 AM CDT
He Spent Weeks on the Pile After 9/11. What Did It Do to His Brain?
In this Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, file photo, rescue workers continue their search as smoke rises from the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York.   (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser, File)

In 2015, at age 52, Ron Kirchner was diagnosed with dementia. His wife was told an MRI scan of Kirchner's brain could be mistaken for that of an 85-year-old. What makes that reality all the more tragic is this: Kirchner was a firefighter who spent almost 600 hours—the equivalent of 15 weeks of 8-hour days—working amid the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11, and as Patrick Hruby writes for the Washington Post, Kirchner isn't alone. "Ground Zero first responders are suffering from abnormally high rates of cognitive impairment," Hruby writes, and he backs that up with numbers, pointing to studies done since 2014 that have found an unusual rate of dementia. In one study, of 818 responders, 104 returned test scores that indicated cognitive impairment, and the scores of another 10 put them in the dementia range; in a typical pool of people, you'd expect to see one at most in that latter group.

"Many had to pass mentally demanding tests to become police officers and firefighters in the first place," notes Hruby. "They were some of the last individuals you would expect to be impaired, let alone at roughly three times the rate of people in their 70s." Hruby allows that the evidence 9/11 is to blame isn't "definitive," but it's certainly there. Among it: higher levels of a protein associated with neuroinflammation in the brains of responders, with those who spent more time at Ground Zero showing the highest levels; and an experiment in which mice had Ground Zero dust inserted in their noses and developed neuroinflammation. Hruby circles back to Kirchner, a man who loved to take walks with his wife and had a construction company on the side. Now, "Ron swallows his toothpaste. He struggles to step into the shower." (Read the full story, which dives into the expense of dementia care, which isn't currently covered under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.)

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