By Dr. Mercola
Alzheimer's disease, a severe form of dementia, affects an estimated 5.2 million Americans, according to 2013 statistics.1 Approximately 7.7 million new cases of dementia are identified every year—which amounts to one new case every four seconds.2
One in nine seniors over the age of 65 has Alzheimer's, and the disease is now thought to be the third leading cause of death in the US, right behind heart disease and cancer.
While you cannot change your age and family history, there are modifiable lifestyle factors you can act upon to effectively reduce your risk for developing this tragic disease.
These modifiable risk factors include things like diet, physical activity, obesity, cognitive activity, and tobacco use. Recent research indicates that tobacco use may play a significant role in Alzheimer's disease.
In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report entitled "Tobacco Use & Dementia,"3, 4 based on a comprehensive scientific review of tobacco use, exposure to secondhand smoke, and incidence rates for all types of dementia, including Alzheimer's.
The report found that smokers have a 45 percent higher risk of developing dementia than non-smokers, and concluded that 14 percent of all Alzheimer's cases worldwide may potentially be attributed to smoking.
These risks hold true across nearly every income level and geographic boundary—including US, China, India, and Latin America. Smokers with dementia also die earlier than non-smokers with dementia.
Tobacco Damages Your Blood Vessels and Brain Cells
Smoking is thought to cause dementia by the same biological mechanisms as its contribution to coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease, and stroke, namely by promoting the following three pathological processes:5
- Increasing total plasma homocysteine, which is a known risk factor for stroke, cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's, and other dementias
- Accelerating atherosclerosis in your heart and brain, which deprives your brain cells of oxygen and important nutrients. Arterial stiffness is associated with the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque in your brain, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease
- Oxidative stress, excitotoxicity, neural death, and inflammation that may directly or indirectly be related to brain changes seen in people with Alzheimer's
For those who have a past history of smoking but do not currently smoke, the risk is less predictable, which suggests that smoking cessation later in life is beneficial and may reduce your dementia risk, as well as lowering your overall mortality.
This conclusion matches the findings of prior studies, which point to the benefits of smoking cessation regardless of your age.6 One study showed that women who quit smoking before age 40 avoid more than 90 percent of the overall increased mortality caused by continued smoking, and those who quit by age 30 avoid 97 percent of the increased mortality.
Another study found smokers over age 65 who quit smoking might reduce their risk of dying from heart-related problems to that of a non-smoker within just eight years.
Your Risks from Secondhand Smoke Are Almost as High
A link between secondhand smoke and dementia is very likely, although studies are limited. According to the WHO:7
"The pathophysiological link between secondhand smoke exposure and dementia is not well understood. At this time, an indirect causal pathway is biologically plausible because of recognized associations between secondhand smoke exposure, increased risk of cardiovascular conditions and stroke.
The cardiovascular effects of secondhand smoke are nearly as great as for smoking, and operate through essentially the same biological mechanisms..."
The report cites six studies that all suggest exposure to secondhand smoke increases your risk for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. The risk appears to be "dose-dependent"—related to the frequency and duration of exposure. Even less is known about smokeless tobacco use and dementia risk. The WHO scientists state:
"Smokeless tobacco contains over 2000 chemical compounds, including nicotine. It is biologically plausible that the use of smokeless tobacco could increase the risk of dementia through cardiovascular disease-related mechanisms, as use of snus [a type of Swedish smokeless tobacco sold in loose form or in paper sachets that users stuff under their upper lip] has an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease."
It should also be noted that secondhand smoke is dangerous to the health of your pets. Animals can develop lung damage and certain kinds of cancers from exposure to smoke, residual chemicals left behind by cigarettes, and from toxins that cling to a smoker's hands and clothing. Studies show that secondhand smoke may double your cat's risk for lymphoma.
Is Alzheimer's Disease Really Another Type of Diabetes?
A growing body of research suggests there's a major connection between your diet and your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, via similar pathways that cause type 2 diabetes, as explained by Dr. Perlmutter in the interview above. If you are diabetic, your risk of Alzheimer's is TWICE that of someone with optimal metabolic function.
Even if you are perfectly healthy, excess sugar and other carbohydrates can disrupt your brain function. Over the long term, sugar can contribute to the shrinking of your hippocampus, which is a hallmark symptom of Alzheimer's disease.
This connection between diet and brain function is so profound that Alzheimer's disease was tentatively dubbed "type 3 diabetes" in early 2005, when researchers discovered that in addition to your pancreas, your brain also produces insulin, and this brain insulin is necessary for the survival of your brain cells.
Contrary to popular belief, your brain does not require glucose and actually functions better burning alternative fuels, especially ketones, which your body produces in response to digesting healthy fats. According to some experts, such as Dr. Ron Rosedale, Alzheimer's and other brain disorders may in large part be caused by the constant burning of glucose for fuel by your brain.
There is strong evidence that overconsumption of carbohydrates and underconsumption of healthy fats are central to the Alzheimer's epidemic. It is conceivable that lowering glucose levels in older people may have a positive influence on cognition, even if they're within the "normal" range.
New Study: Aspartame May Play a Role in Alzheimer's
Studies are beginning to confirm lingering suspicions that aspartame may play a role in Alzheimer's. The key mechanism of harm appears to be methanol toxicity—a much-ignored problem associated with this artificial sweetener in particular. In recent research, methanol-fed mice displayed partial "Alzheimer's disease-like symptoms," and rhesus monkeys fed methanol developed persistent pathological changes related to the development of Alzheimer's.
Humans are the only mammals who are NOT equipped with a protective biological mechanism that breaks down methanol into harmless formic acid. This is why animal testing of aspartame does not fully apply to humans. Since there is no conventional cure, the issue of prevention is absolutely critical if you want to avoid becoming an Alzheimer's statistic. The remainder of this article will cover diet and lifestyle strategies for optimizing brain health, as well as tips for increasing your success in quitting smoking.
I. Alzheimer's Prevention Strategies: Diet
Keeping your brain healthy and preventing the pathological changes that pave the way to dementia begins with optimizing your diet. Several important principles are outlined below, and more comprehensive information is provided in my free Optimized Nutrition Plan.
- Avoid sugar and refined fructose. Ideally, you'll want to keep your sugar levels to a minimum and your total fructose below 25 grams per day, or as low as 15 grams per day if you have insulin/leptin resistance or any related disorders.
- Avoid gluten and casein (primarily wheat and pasteurized dairy, but not dairy fat, such as butter). Research shows that your blood-brain barrier is negatively affected by gluten. Gluten also makes your gut more permeable, which allows proteins to get into your bloodstream, where they don't belong. That then sensitizes your immune system and promotes inflammation and autoimmunity, both of which play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease For more on this topic, please listen to my 2013 interview with Dr. David Perlmutter, included above, author of New York Times Bestseller Grain Brain.
- Optimize your gut flora by regularly eating fermented foods or taking a high-potency and high-quality probiotic supplement.
- Increase consumption of all healthful fats, including animal-based omega-3. Health-promoting fats that your brain needs for optimal function include organic butter from raw milk, clarified butter called ghee, organic grass-fed raw butter, olives, organic virgin olive oil and coconut oil, nuts like pecans and macadamia, free-range eggs, wild Alaskan salmon, and avocado. Also make sure you're getting enough animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. (I recommend avoiding most fish because, although fish is naturally high in omega-3, most fish are now severely contaminated with mercury.) High intake of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA help by preventing cell damage caused by Alzheimer's disease, thereby slowing down its progression, and lowering your risk of developing the disorder.
- Reduce your overall calorie consumption, and/or intermittently fast. Ketones are mobilized when you replace carbs with coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats. Intermittent fasting is a powerful tool to jumpstart your body into remembering how to burn fat and repair the insulin/leptin resistance that is also a primary contributing factor for Alzheimer's. To learn more, please see this previous article.
- Improve your magnesium levels. There is some exciting preliminary research strongly suggesting a decrease in Alzheimer symptoms with increased levels of magnesium in the brain. Unfortunately most magnesium supplements do not pass the blood brain levels, but a new one, magnesium threonate, appears to and holds some promise for the future for treating this condition and may be superior to other forms.
- Eat a nutritious diet rich in folate. Vegetables, without question, are your best form of folate, and we should all eat plenty of fresh raw veggies every day. Avoid supplements like folic acid, which is the inferior synthetic version of folate.
II. Alzheimer's Prevention Strategies: Lifestyle
Besides diet, there are a number of other lifestyle factors that can contribute to or impede neurological health. The following strategies are therefore also important for any Alzheimer's prevention plan:
- Exercise regularly. It's been suggested that exercise can trigger a change in the way the amyloid precursor protein is metabolized,8 thus, slowing down the onset and progression of Alzheimer's. Exercise also increases levels of the protein PGC-1alpha. Research has shown that people with Alzheimer's have less PGC-1alpha in their brains9—and cells that contain more of the protein produce less of the toxic amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer's. I would strongly recommend reviewing the Peak Fitness Technique for my specific recommendations.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels with safe sun exposure. Strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer's patients and poor outcomes on cognitive tests have been revealed. Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of the glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health. Vitamin D may also exert some of its beneficial effects on Alzheimer's through its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Sufficient vitamin D is imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation that is also associated with Alzheimer's.
- Avoid and eliminate mercury from your body. Dental amalgam fillings, which are 50 percent mercury by weight, are one of the major sources of heavy metal toxicity. However, you should be healthy prior to having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my optimized nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a biological dentist to have your amalgams removed.
- Avoid and eliminate aluminum from your body: Sources of aluminum include antiperspirants, non-stick cookware, vaccine adjuvants, etc. For tips on how to detox aluminum, please see my article, "First Case Study to Show Direct Link Between Alzheimer's and Aluminum Toxicity."
- Avoid flu vaccinations as most contain both mercury and aluminum, well-known neurotoxic and immunotoxic agents.
- Avoid anticholinergics and statin drugs. Drugs that block acetylcholine, a nervous system neurotransmitter, have been shown to increase your risk of dementia. These drugs include certain nighttime pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers. Statin drugs are particularly problematic because they suppress the synthesis of cholesterol, deplete your brain of coenzyme Q10 and neurotransmitter precursors, and prevent adequate delivery of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble antioxidants to your brain by inhibiting the production of the indispensable carrier biomolecule known as low-density lipoprotein.
- Challenge your mind daily. Mental stimulation, especially learning something new, such as learning to play an instrument or a new language, is associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers suspect that mental challenge helps to build up your brain, making it less susceptible to the lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease.
- Manage stress. Recent research shows that stress may be related to the onset of Alzheimer's disease by triggering a degenerative process in your brain. Researchers found that nearly three out of four Alzheimer's patients had experienced severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis, compared to just over one in four in the control group. One of the keys is to find a healthy emotional outlet. Many people use exercise, meditation, or relaxation techniques for this, and these are all great. But additionally, I recommend learning the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), as this an excellent tool for managing everyday stress and clearing out old emotional patterns that may not be serving you well.
III. Other Natural Treatments for Your Anti-Alzheimer's Arsenal
Finally, there are a few other nutritional recommendations worth noting for their specific benefits in preventing and treating dementia. So, although your fundamental strategy for preventing dementia should involve a comprehensive lifestyle approach, you may want to consider adding a few of these natural dietary agents to your anti-Alzheimer's arsenal. These four natural foods/supplements have good science behind them, in terms of preventing age-related cognitive changes:
- Ginkgo biloba: Many scientific studies have found that Ginkgo biloba has positive effects for dementia. Ginkgo, which is derived from a tree native to Asia, has long been used medicinally in China and other countries. A1997 study from JAMA showed clear evidence that Ginkgo improves cognitive performance and social functioning for those suffering from dementia. Research since then has been equally promising. One study in 2006 found Ginkgo as effective as the dementia drug Aricept (donepezil) for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer's type dementia. A 2010 meta-analysis found Ginkgo biloba to be effective for a variety of types of dementia.
- Coconut Oil: Ketone bodies are an alternative fuel for your brain that your body makes when digesting coconut oil.
- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): ALA can stabilize cognitive functions among Alzheimer's patients and may slow the progression of the disease.
- Vitamin B12: A small Finnish study published in the journal Neurology12 found thatpeople who consume foods rich in B12 may reduce their risk of Alzheimer's in their later years. For each unit increase in the marker of vitamin B12, the risk of developing Alzheimer's was reduced by two percent. Remember, sublingual methylcobalamin may be your best bet here.
Secrets to Success in Quitting Smoking
It's never too late to benefit from stopping smoking. I believe the "secret" is to get healthy first, which will make quitting that much easier. If you have implemented the diet and lifestyle strategies outlined above, you are well on your way! Exercise is particularly important here. Research shows that people who engage in regular exercise (specifically, strength training) are TWICE as likely to succeed in quitting smoking as those who don't exercise.13
Studies also show that two-thirds to three-quarters of ex-smokers stop unaided,14 so if you're thinking of quitting smoking, try going cold turkey. However you choose to go about it, I strongly advise against using "anti-smoking" drugs like Chantix, which have potentially serious side effects, including depression, suicidal behavior, and a multitude of other problems. Proper nutrition, regular exercise, sound sleep and good stress management are far better ways of approaching smoking cessation. EFT, which I mentioned earlier in reference to stress management, can also be a powerful tool for keeping tobacco cravings to a minimum.