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Dementia Deaths Have Doubled in Two Decades

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Alzheimer’s disease — the most severe form of dementia for which there is no effective conventional treatment or cure — currently affects an estimated 5.8 million Americans. By 2050, that figure is projected to hit 14 million
  • The latest report from the National Center for Health Statistics reveals the rate of death from dementia more than doubled between 2000 and 2017, from 84,000 to 261,914
  • This data are based on death certificates, which the CDC admits (and a 2014 study demonstrated) underrepresents the true death toll
  • If changes in your memory or thinking skills are severe enough to be noticed by your friends and family you could be facing mild cognitive impairment, a slight decline in cognitive abilities that increases your risk of developing more serious dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. Early warning signs are discussed
  • A high-fat, moderate-protein, low net-carb ketogenic diet is crucial for protecting your brain health and preventing degeneration that can lead to Alzheimer’s. Other risk factors and suggestions for how to minimize your risk are discussed

Alzheimer's disease — the most common form of dementia for which there is no effective conventional treatment or cure — currently affects an estimated 5.8 million Americans,1 up from 5.4 million in 2016. By 2050, that figure is projected to hit 14 million.2

Research3 published in 2014 revealed Alzheimer's had risen to the point of being the third leading cause of death in the U.S.4 For clarification, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to list Alzheimer's as the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.,5 this ranking is based on death certificates, and the study in question found Alzheimer's was grossly underreported as a cause of death on death certificates.

Recalculations based on the evaluation of donated organs from the diseased put the actual death toll attributable to dementia at 503,400, making it the third leading cause of death, right behind heart disease and cancer.

According to CDC data, the death rate from Alzheimer's rose 55 percent between 1999 and 2014.6,7 Now, the latest report from the National Center for Health Statistics reveals the rate of death from dementia more than doubled between 2000 and 2017, from 84,000 to 261,914.8,9,10

Forty-six percent of dementia deaths in 2017 were attributed to Alzheimer's. Other forms of dementia included vascular dementia, unspecified dementia and other degenerative nervous system diseases. But again, this data is based on death certificates, which the CDC admits (and the 2014 study above demonstrated) underrepresents the true death toll.

Could Your Memory Problems Be a Symptom of Alzheimer's?

As noted by CNN, progression of Alzheimer's disease varies, but often begin with short-term memory lapses that later progress to speech problems and trouble with executive functions.11

If changes in your memory or thinking skills are severe enough to be noticed by your friends and family you could be facing mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is a slight decline in cognitive abilities that increases your risk of developing more serious dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

If your mental changes are so significant that they interfere with your ability to function or live independently, it could signal the onset of dementia. For instance, it's normal to have trouble finding the right word on occasion, but if you forget words frequently and repeat phrases and stories during a conversation, there could be a problem.

The video above reviews 10 early warning signs of Alzheimer's, and compares these signs with examples of typical age-related cognitive changes that are not a major cause for concern. You can also find a similar list compiled by the Alzheimer's Association.12

Another red flag is getting lost or disoriented in familiar places (as opposed to needing to ask for directions on occasion). If you're able to later describe a time when you were forgetful, such as misplacing your keys, that's a good sign; a more serious signal is not being able to recall situations when memory loss caused a problem, even though your loved ones describe it to you. Other warning signs of MCI or dementia include:

Difficulty performing daily tasks like paying bills or taking care of personal hygiene

Asking the same question over and over

Difficulty making choices

Exhibiting poor judgment or inappropriate social behaviors

Changes in personality or loss of interest in favorite activities

Memory lapses that put people in danger, like leaving the stove on

Inability to recognize faces or familiar objects

Denying a memory problem exists and getting angry when others bring it up

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If Your Memory Is Slipping, Switch to a Ketogenic Diet

If your memory slips often enough to put even an inkling of concern or doubt in your mind, it's time to take action. A high-fat, moderate-protein, low-net-carb ketogenic diet is crucial for protecting your brain health and preventing degeneration that can lead to Alzheimer's.

One of the most striking studies13 showing the effects of a high-fat/low-carb versus high-carb diets on brain health revealed that high-carb diets increase your risk of dementia by a whopping 89 percent, while high-fat diets lower it by 44 percent. 

According to the authors, "A dietary pattern with relatively high caloric intake from carbohydrates and low caloric intake from fat and proteins may increase the risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia in elderly persons." A ketogenic diet benefits your brain in a number of different ways. For example, it:

Triggers ketone production — A cyclical ketogenic diet will help you convert from carb-burning mode to fat-burning mode, which in turn triggers your body to produce ketones, an important source of energy (fuel) for your brain14 that have been shown to help prevent brain atrophy and alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer's.15 They may even restore and renew neuron and nerve function in your brain after damage has set in.

Improves your insulin sensitivity — A cyclical ketogenic diet will also improve your insulin sensitivity, which is an important factor in Alzheimer's.16 The link between insulin sensitivity and Alzheimer's is so strong, the disease is sometimes referred to as Type 3 diabetes.

Even mild elevation of blood sugar is associated with an elevated risk for dementia.17 Diabetes and heart disease18 are also known to elevate your risk, and both are rooted in insulin resistance. 

The connection between high-sugar diets and Alzheimer's was also highlighted in a longitudinal study published in the journal Diabetologia in January 2018.19 Nearly 5,190 individuals were followed over a decade, and the results showed that the higher an individual's blood sugar, the faster their rate of cognitive decline.

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.20,21

Reduces free radical damage and lowers inflammation in your brain — Ketones not only burn very efficiently and are a superior fuel for your brain, but also generate fewer reactive oxygen species and less free radical damage.

A ketone called beta hydroxybutyrate is also a major epigenetic player, stimulating radical decreases in oxidative stress by decreasing NF-kB, thus reducing inflammation and NADPH levels along with beneficial changes in DNA expression that improve your detoxification and antioxidant production.

I explain the ins and outs of implementing this kind of diet, and its many health benefits, in my new book "KetoFast." In it, I also explain why cycling through stages of feast and famine, opposed to continuously remaining in nutritional ketosis, is so important.

What Do We Know About the Causes of Alzheimer's Disease?

It's often said that the underlying causes of Alzheimer's disease are unknown, but there's no shortage of theories. Insulin resistance, discussed above, appears to be a really significant factor, but it's not the only one. Based on the available science, here are several other prominent or likely culprits that can raise your risk of Alzheimer's disease, and suggestions for how to avoid them:

High-sugar, processed food diets — Insulin resistance is a direct result of a high-sugar diet. Processed foods also contain a number of other ingredients that are harmful to your brain, including gluten, vegetable oils, genetically engineered ingredients and pesticides.

Solution: Keep your fasting insulin levels below 3; minimize sugar consumption, boost healthy fat intake and focus on real food — If your insulin is high, you're likely consuming too much sugar and need to cut back. Ideally, keep your added sugar to a minimum and your total fructose below 25 grams per day, or as low as 15 grams per day if you already have insulin/leptin resistance or any related disorders.

To get down to this level, you'll have to eat real, whole food, as processed foods are chockfull of added sugars. It's important to realize that your brain actually does not need carbs and sugars; healthy fats such as saturated animal fats and animal-based omega-3 are far more critical for optimal brain function.

Also remember to pay close attention to the kinds of fats you eat — avoid all trans fats or hydrogenated fats. This includes margarine, vegetable oils and various butter-like spreads.

Healthy fats to add to your diet include avocados, butter, organic pastured egg yolks, coconuts and coconut oil, grass fed meats and raw nuts such as pecans and macadamia. MCT oil is also a great source of ketone bodies. 

Alcohol abuse — According to research22 published in 2018, alcohol use is a major risk factor for dementia. The study, the largest of its kind, concluded that alcohol use disorders "are the most important preventable risk factors for the onset of all types of dementia, especially early-onset dementia," Science News reports.23

Solution: Limit alcohol use, and get treatment for alcohol use disorder.

Vitamin D deficiency — The Scotland Dementia Research Centre has noted a very clear link between vitamin D deficiency and dementia.24 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. In a 2014 study,25 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.

Solution: Optimize your vitamin D level — The bulk of the research suggests maintaining a vitamin D level between 60 and 80 ng/mL (150 to 200 nmol/L) year-round. Ideally, get your level checked twice a year, and if you're unable to maintain a healthy level through sensible sun exposure alone, be sure to take an oral vitamin D3 supplement.

Low omega-3 level — According to neuroimaging research, low omega-3 may be a factor in Alzheimer's,26 and omega-3 is certainly a crucial component for optimal brain health in general. People with higher omega-3 levels were found to have increased blood flow in areas of the brain associated with memory and learning.

The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease also notes animal research showing omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have anti-amyloid, anti-tau and anti-inflammatory activity in the brain.27

Solution: Optimize your omega-3 index — Ideally, get an omega-3 index test done once a year to make sure you're in a healthy range. Your omega-3 index should be above 8 percent and your omega 6-to-3 ratio between 0.5 and 3.0. 

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.

Solution: Get regular sun exposure and/or consider photobiomodulation therapy — I've 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.

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.28 Last year, researchers also found they could measure the distribution and levels of prions in the eye,29 thereby improving diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the human version of mad cow disease.

Solution: Avoid eating meat from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — Due to its similarities with mad cow disease, investigators have raised the possibility that Alzheimer's disease may be linked to CAFO meat consumption. There are many reasons to avoid CAFO animal products, and this is yet another one, even if this particular risk is small.

Environmental toxins, including electromagnetic fields (EMF) — 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.30,31,32

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.

Solution: Minimize exposure to environmental toxins and EMFs — In terms of air pollution, it's worth remembering that your indoor air is often five times more polluted than outdoor air, and indoors, it's something you can control, using a high-quality air purifier. Pesticides can be avoided by eating certified organic foods.

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, Wi-Fi and more.

Radiation from cellphones and other wireless technologies trigger excessive production of peroxynitrites,33 a highly damaging reactive nitrogen species. Increased peroxynitrites from cellphone exposure will damage your mitochondria,34,35 and your brain is the most mitochondrial-dense organ in your body. To learn more about the mechanisms that place your health in jeopardy, and what you can do about it, see "Top 19 Tips to Reduce Your EMF Exposure."

Inactivity / lack of exercise — Exercise has been shown to protect your brain from Alzheimer's and other dementias,36 and also improves quality of life if you've already been diagnosed.

In one study,37,38 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 studies39 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 memory40 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,41 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,42 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.43 As noted in one 2016 paper on this topic:44

"Moderate and high intensities have demonstrated a neuroprotective effect through the production of antioxidant enzymes and growth factors such as superoxide dismutase, eNOS, BDNF, nerve growth factors, insulin-like growth factors and vascular endothelial growth factor and by reducing the production of ROS, neuroinflammation, the concentration of Aβ plaques in cognitive regions and tau pathology, leading to the improvement of cerebral blood flow, hyperemia, cerebrovascular reactivity and memory."

Solution: Move regularly and consistently throughout the day, and implement a regular exercise routine.

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 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.45

Solution: Address high blood pressure and risk factors for heart disease — One of the most important all-natural remedies for high blood pressure is to raise your nitric oxide production, which can be done through high-intensity exercise (including the super-simple Nitric Oxide Dump exercise), high-nitrate foods such as beets and arugula.

For more information, see "Top 9 Reasons to Optimize Your Nitric Oxide Production" and "How to Successfully Control High Blood Pressure Without Medications."

Genetic predisposition — Several genes that predispose you to Alzheimer's have been identified.46 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.47 In this case, by looking for mutation in the genes for presenilin 1 and presenilin 2. 

Solution: Genetic testing to help ascertain your risk — People with one or more genetic predispositions are at particularly high risk of developing Alzheimer's at a very young age.

Additional Alzheimer's Preventive Strategies

In 2014, Bredesen published a paper that demonstrates the power of lifestyle choices for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's. By leveraging 36 healthy lifestyle parameters, he was able to reverse Alzheimer's in 9 out of 10 patients. This included the use of exercise, ketogenic diet, optimizing vitamin D and other hormones, increasing sleep, meditation, detoxification and eliminating gluten and processed food.

You can download Bredesen's full-text case paper online, which details the full program.48 Following are a few lifestyle strategies that, in addition to those already mentioned above, can be helpful for the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer's.

Optimize your gut flora To do this, avoid processed foods, antibiotics and antibacterial products, fluoridated and chlorinated water, and be sure to eat traditionally fermented and cultured foods, along with a high-quality probiotic if needed. Dr. Steven Gundry does an excellent job of expanding on this in his new book "The Plant Paradox."

Intermittently fast — Intermittent fasting is a powerful tool to jump-start your body into remembering how to burn fat and repair the insulin/leptin resistance that is a primary contributing factor for Alzheimer's.

Optimize your magnesium levels — Preliminary research strongly suggests a decrease in Alzheimer symptoms with increased levels of magnesium in the brain. Keep in mind that the only magnesium supplement that appears to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier is magnesium threonate. 

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, see "Top Tips to Detox Your Body."

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.

Optimize your sleep — Sleep is necessary for maintaining metabolic homeostasis in your brain. Without sufficient sleep, neuron degeneration sets in, and catching up on sleep during weekends will not prevent this damage.49,50,51

Sleep deprivation causes disruption of certain synaptic connections that can impair your brain's ability for learning, memory formation and other cognitive functions. Poor sleep also accelerates the onset of Alzheimer's disease.52

Most adults need seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Deep sleep is the most important, as this is when your brain's glymphatic system performs its cleanout functions, eliminating toxic waste from your brain, including amyloid beta. For a comprehensive sleep guide, see "33 Secret's to a Good Night's Sleep."

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.

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