5 Chemical Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease

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Minds continue to be stolen by Alzheimer’s disease at an alarming rate, and many of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease are either not well known the general public — or not yet fully understood. Every three seconds someone is diagnosed with dementia, which now affects 5.3 million Americans and more than half a million Canadians. Alzheimer’s steals more than just memories. It hijacks one’s personality, thoughts and emotions—the very essence of who you are. Early-onset dementia (before age 65) currently represents about five percent of cases, and rising, hitting many in their 40s and 50s.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death. As it progresses, it robs its victims of the ability to eat, drink, swallow or move without assistance and opens the door to deadly complications such as dehydration, infection, and fatal blood clots.

Is Alzheimer’s incurable? At this point, yes. Is it preventable? Maybe, but we don’t yet have all the pieces of the puzzle.

We know dementia starts in the brain 30 to 50 years before symptoms appear. Science is just beginning to wrap its head around the various factors contributing to the amyloid plaques so characteristic of those with Alzheimer’s disease. Research confirms that many of the chemicals we’re exposed to in our food, water and air have direct links with Alzheimer’s.

Although it’s no longer possible to avoid all chemicals, you can keep your body’s toxic burden low enough to be manageable, while at the same time building up your immune system and your natural detoxification mechanisms so that your body can efficiently cleanse itself. Five common chemicals with known links to Alzheimer’s are the focus of this article. Of course there are others, but these will serve as a good start to your “avoid” list.

1. Pesticides

Science has connected the dots between chronic pesticide exposure and increased cognitive, behavioral and psychomotor dysfunction. Pesticide use has radically increased over the past 50 years with more than 18,000 pesticides now licensed in the US. More than two billion pounds of pesticides are doused on the land each year, making these chemicals ubiquitous in our environment. We can minimize our exposure by eating organically, but pesticides are showing up everywhere and in everyone so they’re proving impossible to escape. An extensive scientific review published in Toxicology in 2013 lead the authors to conclude the following: (1)

At the cellular and molecular level, the mechanism of action of many classes of pesticides suggests that these compounds could be, at least partly, accountable for the neurodegeneration accompanying Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Ingesting pesticides from your food is one thing, but occupational exposure takes your risk to an entirely new level. People who work with pesticides are 53 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease later in life. (2, 3) Studies suggest these toxic compounds may affect the release of acetylcholine—a chemical important for memory—and play a role in mitochondrial damage. (4, 5)

DDT

DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is the most notorious pesticide in the history of agriculture and the unfortunate “gift that keeps on giving.” Banned in 1972, DDT degrades so slowly that it continues to linger in our environment today and could possibly be contributing to our Alzheimer’s epidemic. (6) DDT and its byproducts, such as DDE, still show up in many foods including animal products, dairy, fish, seafood, vegetables, and other edibles.

A 2014 study published in JAMA Neurology found DDE levels among individuals with Alzheimer’s nearly four times greater than controls. Individuals with higher DDE levels also showed substantially worse cognitive performance. (7) Another study using human brain cells found DDT to increase beta-amyloid levels. (8)

Glyphosate

Perhaps an even greater concern is the risk posed by glyphosate, the most widely used biocide today and the key chemical in Roundup. In the US, 1.8 million tons of glyphosate have been applied since its introduction in 1974, and 9.4 million tons have been applied worldwide. It’s just about everywhere.

Glyphosate is linked to a broad spectrum of diseases via DNA-disrupting mechanisms. It produces the same oxidative stress and neural cell death found in Alzheimer’s disease, likely related to glutamate toxicity. Glyphosate masquerades as the amino acid glycine in the body—it’s a glycine analog. (9, 10) One of the primary ways to reduce your exposure is to eat certified organic foods and locally sourced foods from reputable growers whose practices you trust.

2. Heavy Metals

Heavy metals are another major group of neurotoxic agents that open the door to dementia. Just like pesticides, they are difficult for our bodies to get rid of, and also like pesticides they are ubiquitous in our environment today. The worst offenders are fluoride, aluminum, lead and mercury.

Fluoride

Many municipalities add fluoride to drinking water ostensibly to reduce tooth decay, but despite its purported value for public health, fluoride brings with it a boatload of health problems—one being cognitive impairment and dementia. The type of fluoride added to drinking water is not naturally occurring fluoride but hydrofluorosilicic acid, which is actually a waste product from the phosphate fertilizer industry.

Research reveals a disturbing link between fluoride ingestion, neurotoxicity and the formation of amyloid plaques. When rats were exposed to levels of fluoride equivalent to public drinking water, their brains began forming amyloid plaques, just like people with Alzheimer’s. (11) A multitude of studies link water fluoridation with brain damage in children that is sufficient to lower IQ. (12) Additionally, amyloid plaque buildup was recently discovered in the brains of autistic children—plaques  nearly identical to those found in Alzheimer’s sufferers. (13, 14)

Aluminum

Aluminum is the most abundant neurotoxic metal on Earth and is toxic in very small amounts. Toxicity can easily be “achieved” through ordinary diet, although food is not your only source of exposure. You can pick up aluminum from cookware, foods (processed cheese, table salt, baking powder, bleached flour, non-dairy creamers, etc.), drugs and vaccines, dental amalgams, personal care products such as antiperspirants, and more—so read your labels carefully.

Aluminum is capable of traversing your blood-brain barrier and can accumulate in your brain over time. Its toxicity as a factor in dementia is nicely summarized in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: (15)

Since 1911, experimental evidence has repeatedly demonstrated that chronic aluminum intoxication reproduces neuropathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Misconceptions about aluminum bioavailability may have misled scientists regarding the significance of aluminum in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s. The hypothesis that aluminum significantly contributes to Alzheimer’s is built upon very solid experimental evidence and should not be dismissed. Immediate steps should be taken to lessen human exposure to aluminum, which may be the single most aggravating and avoidable factor related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Mercury

Mercury is another dangerous neurotoxin, in fact one of the most toxic substances known. Mercury can turn into a gas at room temperature so that it easily penetrates your body and brain. Making matters worse, many human brains have mercury dental fillings off-gassing right next door.

A team of researchers conducted a literature review of more than 100 studies, to explore the association between mercury and Alzheimer’s disease. (16) They found animals exposed to mercury exhibited many of the same signs and symptoms as humans with Alzheimer’s such as memory loss, impaired cognition and confusion. One mechanism by which mercury impairs cognitive function is reducing the efficacy of selenium, an antioxidant that helps suppress damaging chemical reactions in your brain.

Lead

Studies clearly connect accelerated cognitive decline with cumulative lead exposure. Animal studies reveal a causative association between lead exposure early in life and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. (17, 18) The implications are that a large subset of our current dementia population may have been exposed to lead as children, before lead was banned from paint and car emissions. Science has shown that even very low exposure to ambient lead may increase the odds that an individual’s mild cognitive impairment (MCI) will progress into full blown Alzheimer’s disease. (19)

Lead has by no means been eradicated from our world. Plenty of older homes are still plagued by lead dust, as well as lead leaching into drinking water from lead pipes and solder. Lead also taints imported children’s toys, as well as food grown in contaminated soils. Certain plants are especially adept at taking up lead and other heavy metals from the soil, with tea plants being one example.

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3. Aspartame

Studies are now beginning to confirm long-held suspicions that the artificial sweetener aspartame plays a role in dementia, with the mechanism being methanol toxicity. Methanol is a metabolic byproduct of aspartame.

It turns out that animal studies have not been a reliable predictor of aspartame’s toxicity in humans because there are significant differences in how animals and humans metabolize the chemical. Humans are the ONLY mammals not biologically equipped to break down methanol. In humans, methanol metabolizes into toxic formaldehyde, which wreaks havoc in the brain. When mice are fed methanol, they develop Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. When monkeys are fed methanol, they develop memory impairment that lasts six months beyond the feeding regimen. (20, 21)

Aspartame is sold under the brand names NutraSweet, Equal and Sugar Twin. Unfortunately, aspartame was just added back into Diet Pepsi to rescue slumping sales after the sweetener’s removal by PepsiCo in 2015.

4. Diacetyl

Do you enjoy an occasional tub of hot, buttery popcorn? Be mindful of what you put on it. A chemical in popular butter flavorings called diacetyl has been found to intensify the damaging effects of amyloid proteins in the brain. A feature of Alzheimer’s disease is the clumping together of these proteins into plaques.

Diacetyl encourages production of amyloids while simultaneously disrupting the mechanism that prevents their clumping. Specifically, diacetyl disrupts the production of glyoxalase I, the primary agent your neural tissues generate to protect you from these plaques—it prevents the amyloid proteins from sticking together. These proteins cannot form plaques unless they adhere. Furthermore, studies prove diacetyl can penetrate the “blood-brain barrier.” (22)

These health risks have led some companies to discontinue the use of diacetyl, but it can still be found in many foods from microwave popcorn to margarine, snack foods, baked goods, candy, pet foods, and even beer. There is a simple solution to this one: if you want butter flavor, use real butter.

5. Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs)

Do you enjoy a brown crust on the outside of your steak or burger? You may want to forego the browning in favor of saving your mind.

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs), also called glycotoxins, are mangled proteins that form through exposure to sugars. Glycation refers to the bonding of a protein (or lipid) with a sugar molecule without the controlling action of an enzyme, which causes the protein fibers to become stiff and malformed. Cooking foods at high temperatures can produce these AGEs. Glycotoxins have been linked to diabetes, hypertension, and now dementia. Scientists have discovered increased exposure to AGEs may lead to the formation of amyloid plaques.

A study published in the journal PNAS determined that feeding mice a diet with AGE levels comparable to those in the Western diet resulted in dementia in young and middle-aged mice, and amyloid plaques formed in the older mice. Cognitive decline was not simply “age-related” because old mice fed a low-AGE diet did not develop these symptoms. (23)

Minimizing Exposure and Maximizing Detox Are Key

The chemicals discussed above are just the tip of the iceberg. We are living in a virtual chemical soup. It’s not a matter of escaping all exposure but rather doing what you can to minimize the accumulation of toxic compounds in your body. The more you reduce your exposure and improve your overall health, the better your chances for living a long, happy life with your mental facilities intact. It is important to support your body’s detoxification efforts by eating clean whole foods, drinking plenty of water, moving your body often, and incorporating detoxification protocols into your core health plan. For more specifics on detoxification, I invite you to download my ebook Real Detox.

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Learn More about Alzheimer’s Disease, Dementia, and natural strategies to prevent cognitive decline in this week’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Summit.

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Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario.

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