By Dr. Mercola
Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most serious form of dementia, eventually leads to the inability to carry out even the most basic of bodily functions, such as swallowing or walking. It is ultimately fatal, as conventional treatment options are few and universally ineffective.
Like autism among children, Alzheimer’s among seniors has reached epidemic proportions, with no slowdown in sight. On the contrary, evidence suggests the trend is worsening. At present, Alzheimer’s affects an estimated 5.4 million Americans.1
Projections suggest the disease will affect 1 in 4 Americans within the next two decades, and by 2050, Alzheimer’s diagnoses are projected to triple.2,3 Shocking statistics published in the journal Neurology in 2014 revealed Alzheimer’s killed more than 503,000 American seniors in 2010, making it the third leading cause of death, right behind heart disease and cancer.4
Now, data published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reveals that between 1999 and 2014, the death rate from Alzheimer’s increased by 55 percent,5,6,7,8 — a rather radical increase in a mere 15 years.
The CDC report also noted the number of people dying from the disease at home, opposed to in a care facility, has increased from 14 to 25 percent. This means many Alzheimer’s caretakers are unpaid family members and friends — a task known to be taxing from both an emotional and financial perspective. While these statistics sound dire enough, the reality may be even worse than that.
Alzheimer’s Deaths Are Likely Severely Underreported
The CDC report used data collected from U.S. death certificates. However, the 2014 Neurology study revealed Alzheimer’s deaths are grossly underreported on death certificates. In 2010, death certificates showed there were less than 84,000 deaths from Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, by ascertaining the cause of death based on evaluation of donated organs from the diseased, the actual death toll attributable to dementia came out to 503,400.
If such a trend of underreporting Alzheimer’s disease as a cause of death holds true, the increase in Alzheimer’s deaths over the past 15 years may in fact be far greater than 55 percent.
Indeed, the CDC claims Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death, while the results from the 2014 study ranked it third. According to the CDC, Alzheimer’s killed 93,541 Americans in 2014 — a far cry from the estimated annual death toll of 503,400, reported in the Neurology study. Whatever the case may be, what’s clear is that severe, lethal dementia is rapidly rising, and the medical establishment is no closer to solving the riddle of causation than they were 30 years ago.
What’s Causing Alzheimer’s Disease?
It’s often said that the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease are unknown, but there’s no shortage of theories. Based on the available science, here are several of the most prominent or likely culprits that can raise your risk of Alzheimer’s disease:
✓ Insulin resistance
Mounting research suggests Alzheimer’s disease is intricately connected to insulin resistance; even mild elevation of blood sugar is associated with an elevated risk for dementia.9 Diabetes and heart disease10 are also known to elevate your risk, and both are rooted in insulin resistance. Neurologist David Perlmutter warns anything that promotes insulin resistance, like a processed food diet, will also raise your risk of Alzheimer’s.
Recent research has strengthened the link between insulin resistance and dementia even further, particularly among those with existing heart disease.11,12,13 Studies have also confirmed that the greater an individual’s insulin resistance, the less sugar they have in key parts of their brain, and these areas typically correspond to the areas affected by Alzheimer’s.14,15
✓ Vitamin D deficiency
The Scotland Dementia Research Centre also noted there’s a very clear link between vitamin D deficiency and dementia.16 Indeed, studies have shown vitamin D plays a critical role in brain health, immune function, gene expression and inflammation — all of which influence Alzheimer’s. A wide variety of brain tissue contains vitamin D receptors, and when they’re activated by vitamin D, it facilitates nerve growth in your brain.
Researchers also believe optimal vitamin D levels boost levels of important brain chemicals, and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health. Considering an estimated 95 percent of seniors are at risk of vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency, vitamin D may be a very important factor for successful prevention among the general population.
Research also shows people living in northern latitudes have higher rates of death from Alzheimer’s than those living in sunnier areas,17 suggesting a link between sun exposure, vitamin D and brain health. In a 2014 study,18 considered to be the most robust study of its kind at the time, those who were severely deficient in vitamin D had a 125 percent higher risk of developing some form of dementia compared to those with normal levels.
The findings also suggest there’s a threshold level of circulating vitamin D, below which your risk for dementia increases. This threshold was found to be right around 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) or 50 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) for Europeans.
Higher levels are associated with better brain health in general, and based on a broader view of the available science, 20 ng/ml is still far too low. The bulk of the research suggests a healthy range is between 40 to 60 ng/ml.
✓ Lack of sun exposure
While vitamin D deficiency is directly attributable to lack of sensible sun exposure, vitamin D production is not the only way sun exposure can influence your dementia risk. Evidence suggests sunlight is a beneficial electromagnetic frequency (EMF) that is in fact essential and vital for your health in its own right.
About 40 percent of the rays in sunlight is infrared. The red and near-infrared frequencies interact with cytochrome c oxidase (CCO) — one of the proteins in the inner mitochondrial membrane and a member of the electron transport chain.
CCO is a chromophore, a molecule that attracts and absorbs light. In short, sunlight improves the generation of energy (ATP). The optimal wavelength for stimulating CCO lies in two regions, red at 630 to 660 nanometers (nm) and near-infrared at 810 to 850 nm.
I’ve recently interviewed two different experts on photobiomodulation, a term describing the use of near-infrared light as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. To learn more about this fascinating field, please see my interviews with Michael Hamblin, Ph.D., and Dr. Lew Lim. Both have published papers on using photobiomodulation to improve Alzheimer’s disease.
Photobiomodulation also improves oxygenation to your cells by releasing nitric oxide, and is a vasodilator that helps relax your blood vessels, lower your blood pressure and improve vascular health. Additionally, delivering red (660 nm) and near infrared light (830 nm) to the mitochondria promotes synthesizing of gene transcription factors that trigger cellular repair, and this is as true in the brain as anywhere else in your body.
✓ Prion infection
In addition to viruses, bacteria and fungi, an infectious protein called TDP-43, which behaves like infectious proteins known as prions — responsible for the brain destruction that occurs in Mad Cow and Chronic Wasting Diseases — has been linked to Alzheimer’s.
Research presented at the 2014 Alzheimer's Association International Conference revealed Alzheimer's patients with TDP-43 were 10 times more likely to have been cognitively impaired at death than those without.19 Due to its similarities with mad cow disease, investigators have raised the possibility that Alzheimer’s disease may be linked to eating meat from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
✓ Environmental Toxins
Experts at the Edinburgh University's Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre have compiled a list of top environmental risk factors thought to be contributing to the epidemic, based on a systematic review of the scientific literature.20,21,22,23 As much as one-third of your dementia risk is thought to be linked to environmental factors such as air pollution, pesticide exposure and living close to power lines.
The risk factor with the most robust body of research behind it is air pollution. In fact, they couldn’t find a single study that didn’t show a link between exposure to air pollution and dementia. Particulate matter, nitric oxides, ozone and carbon monoxide have all been linked to an increased risk. Living close to power lines also has “limited yet robust” evidence suggesting it may influence your susceptibility to dementia.
✓ Non-native or artificial electromagnetic fields (EMF)
Non-native EMFs contribute to Alzheimer’s by poisoning your mitochondria, and this is not limited to living in close proximity to power lines. It also includes electromagnetic interference from the electric grid and microwave radiation from your cellphone, cellphone towers and Wi-Fi.
This is a very deep and important topic that I plan to greatly expand on later this year. Based on what I’ve found so far, I’m convinced enough now to never put my cellphone on my body unless it is in airplane mode, and will not hold my cellphone unless it is on a selfie stick.
✓ Inactivity / lack of exercise
Exercise has been shown to protect your brain from Alzheimer's and other dementias, and also improves quality of life if you’ve already been diagnosed.24 In one study,25 patients diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s who participated in a four-month-long supervised exercise program had significantly fewer neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with the disease (especially mental speed and attention) than the inactive control group.
Other studies26 have shown aerobic exercise helps reduce tau levels in the brain. (Brain lesions known as tau tangles form when the protein tau collapses into twisted strands that end up killing your brain cells.) Cognitive function and memory27 can also be improved through regular exercise, and this effect is in part related to the effect exercise has on neurogenesis and the regrowth of brain cells.
By targeting a gene pathway called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), exercise actually promotes brain cell growth and connectivity. In one yearlong study, seniors who exercised grew and expanded their brain’s memory center by as much as 2 percent per year, where typically that center shrinks with age.
Evidence also suggests exercise can trigger a change in the way the amyloid precursor protein is metabolized,28 thus slowing the onset and progression of Alzheimer's. By increasing levels of the protein PGC-1alpha (which Alzheimer’s patients have less of), brain cells produce less of the toxic amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer's.29
✓ Hypertension and heart disease
Arterial stiffness (atherosclerosis) is associated with a hallmark process of Alzheimer’s, namely the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque in your brain. The American Heart Association (AHA) warns there’s a strong association between hypertension and brain diseases such as vascular cognitive impairment (loss of brain function caused by impaired blood flow to your brain) and dementia.30
Moreover, in one clinical trial,31 test subjects who consumed high-fructose corn syrup developed higher risk factors for cardiovascular disease in two weeks, demonstrating just how influential your diet can be on your heart and brain health in the long term.
✓ Genetic predisposition
Several genes that predispose you to Alzheimer’s have also been identified.32 The most common gene associated with late onset Alzheimer’s is the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene. The APOE e2 form is thought to reduce your risk while the APOE e4 form increases it.
That said, some people never develop the disease even though they’ve inherited the APOE e4 gene from both their mother and father (giving them a double set), so while genetics can affect your risk, it is NOT a direct or inevitable cause.
Your risk for early onset familial Alzheimer’s can also be ascertained through genetic testing.33 In this case, by looking for mutation in the genes for presenilin 1 and presenilin 2. People with one or more genetic predispositions are at particularly high risk of developing Alzheimer’s at a very young age. At just 31 years of age, Rebecca Doig is thought to be one of the youngest Alzheimer’s cases presently known.
✓ Optimize your magnesium levels
Preliminary research strongly suggests a decrease in Alzheimer symptoms with increased levels of magnesium in the brain. Magnesium threonate appears particularly useful as it has the ability to cross your blood brain barrier.
✓ Get sensible sun exposure to optimize your vitamin D and reap other photobiomodulation benefits
Sufficient vitamin D is imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation associated with Alzheimer's. If you are unable to get sufficient amounts of sun exposure, make sure to take daily supplemental vitamin D3 to make your blood level at least 40 to 60 ng/ml. This is typically about 8,000 units of vitamin D for most adults.
That said, please do remember that sun exposure is also important for reasons unrelated to vitamin D. The near-infrared light in sunlight actually helps boost cognition and reduces symptoms of Alzheimer’s via a process known as photobiomodulation.
✓ Avoid and eliminate mercury from your body
Dental amalgam fillings 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
Common sources of aluminum include antiperspirants, nonstick cookware and vaccine adjuvants. For tips on how to detox aluminum, please see my article, “First Case Study to Show Direct Link between Alzheimer’s and Aluminum Toxicity.”
There is some suggestion that certain mineral waters high in silicic acid may help your body eliminate aluminum. Later this year I will be interviewing Wendy Meyers, an expert on detoxification and minerals, about some simple strategies you can use to address this.
✓ Avoid flu vaccinations
Most flu vaccines contain both mercury and aluminum.
✓ Avoid statins and anticholinergic 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, vitamin K2 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.
✓ Limit your exposure to non-native electromagnetic fields (cellphones, Wi-Fi routers and modems)
The primary pathology behind cellphone damage is not related specifically to brain tumors, or even to cancer. The real danger lies in damage from the reactive nitrogen species peroxynitrites.39 Increased peroxynitrites from cellphone exposure will damage your mitochondria, and your brain is the most mitochondrial-dense organ in your body.
Increased peroxynitrite generation has also been associated with increased levels of systemic inflammation by triggering cytokine storms, autonomic hormonal dysfunction and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Peroxynitrite is an unstable structural ion produced in your body after nitric oxide is exposed to superoxide, and this complex chemical process begins with exposure to low-frequency microwave radiation from your cellphone, Wi-Fi and cellphone towers.40,41
✓ Get plenty of restorative sleep
Sleep is necessary for maintaining metabolic homeostasis in your brain. Wakefulness is associated with mitochondrial stress; without sufficient sleep, neuron degeneration sets in. While sleep problems are common in Alzheimer’s patients, poor sleep may also be contributing to the disease by driving the buildup of amyloid plaques in your brain.
While you sleep, your brain flushes out waste materials, and if you don’t sleep well, this natural detoxification and clean-out process will be severely hampered.
✓ 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 dementia and 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.