According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, someone in the world develops dementia every three seconds, and the problem is only getting worse. Estimates are that by 2020, the number of people suffering from the disease will double, reaching 75 million in 2030.
It’s been difficult for scientists to determine just what causes dementia. Most cases come about because of progressive brain cell death and neurodegenerative disease, though what starts these processes is unclear. In some cases, a head injury, stroke, or brain tumor can be to blame, or perhaps HIV infections and blood vessel damage.
In general, though, researchers are still trying to figure out what triggers the brain changes that eventually lead to dementia. There is some evidence that a healthy lifestyle involving a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and stress relief can reduce risk.
Meanwhile, it may be surprising to learn that some of the things you’re exposed to in your everyday life could be increasing your risk of brain cell damage and possibly, of dementia. To increase your odds of staying mentally sharp far into your old age, it’s best to be cautious about your exposure to the following four items.
1. Air Pollution
You know that air pollution isn’t good for you, but recent research has suggested that it may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The study was published in 2017, and involved over 3,600 women between the ages of 65 and 79 who were followed for 10 years. The women lived across the 48 continental United States and didn’t have dementia at the start of the study. Researchers tested the air from the locations where the women were living, to determine the level of pollution.
Results showed that women who lived in places with fine particulate matter exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) standards were 81 percent more at risk for cognitive decline, and 92 percent more likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Using these findings, that would mean that air pollution could be responsible for about 21 percent of dementia cases.
Caleb Finch, the co-senior author of the study, noted that these toxic particles can get into the body when we inhale them, and from there, go directly into the brain. “Cells in the brain treat these particles as invaders,” he said, “and react with inflammatory responses, which over the course of time, appear to exacerbate and promote Alzheimer’s disease.”
What to do: To reduce your exposure to potentially dangerous toxins in the air, check daily air pollution forecasts in your area, and avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high. Also, avoid exercising in high-traffic areas, and think twice before burning wood or trash, as these are among the major sources of particle pollution in many areas.
Don’t forget indoor air pollution, which the EPA says is typically worse than outdoor. Open a window frequently to increase ventilation, dust, and vacuum often, leave shoes at the door, use houseplants to help clean the air, and avoid polluting the air with other substances such as the next item on the list: air fresheners.
2. Air Fresheners
Synthetic air fresheners use chemicals to overpower bad smells or to deaden your ability to smell them. According to an EPA test on air freshening units that plug into electric sockets, the fragrance chemicals can react with common indoor air pollutants and created toxic substances like benzene derivatives, pinene and limonene, aldehydes, phenol, and cresol.
In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health published a warning concerning indoor air pollution, which they said could be worsened by air fresheners and scented candles.
The report, entitled “Every Breath We Take,” warned that at least 40,000 deaths a year in the United Kingdom could be linked to the effects of air pollution both inside and outside the home. It also suggested that air fresheners, among other home products, could be part of the problem.
Finally, the report makes a suggested link between these pollutants and dementia, stating, “Examples include the adverse effects of air pollution on the development of the fetus, including lung and kidney development and miscarriage; increases in heart attacks and strokes for those in later life, and the associated links to asthma, diabetes, dementia, obesity, and cancer for the wider population.”
What to do: Find non-toxic ways to freshen the air in your home. Open a window, empty the garbage regularly, invest in an air purifier, and use essential oils, spices, vinegar, and baking soda to help control odors and create a nice scent in the home.
3. Round-Up (Glyphosate)
Do you use Roundup on the weeds around your home? If so, be sure you carefully follow the safety guidelines. The main herbicide in the product, glyphosate, has been linked with dementia.
In one 2014 study, for instance, researchers noted that glyphosate interferes with many of the body’s processes, and has been linked with not only high blood pressure and stroke, but with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, too. They warned that with the strength of the correlations, the effects of glyphosate on human health “should be further investigated.”
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in current agriculture, which has raised more concerns about its possible health effects. It has been found to cause cancer in animal studies and can cause DNA damage.
In a 2016 study on glyphosate, researchers noted that the chemical could be mistakenly incorporated into proteins in the body, which could help explain the link between it and diseases like Alzheimer’s. The researchers concluded, “There is an urgent need to find an effective and economical way to grow crops without the use of glyphosate and glufosinate as herbicides.”
What to do: Be sure to carefully follow all safety instructions when using Roundup around the home, and always wear gloves. Never apply on windy days, and wear a mask to help avoid inhalation of the chemicals. Better yet, try less toxic herbicides. In addition, buy more organic foods, which have shown repeatedly in studies to be lower in pesticide residue than conventional foods.
4. Toxic Heavy Metals
Certain toxic metals like aluminum, mercury, lead, and cadmium can present serious threats to both body and brain. Unfortunately, these metals are often hiding in many common household products, where we can’t readily see them.
In a 2012 study, researchers found that cumulative lifetime lead exposure was associated with accelerated declines in cognition, and pointed to evidence indicating that late-onset Alzheimer’s disease could be related to lead exposure during early life. Other studies have noted similar connections with other heavy metals, with researchers from a 2009 study noting that exposure to arsenic, mercury, aluminum, lithium, or lead “can lead to cognitive decline.”
You’ve probably heard about research suggesting a link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s. In an 8-year follow-up study of about 3,700 individuals, researchers found that a high concentration of aluminum in drinking water could be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies have found no connection, so this link has been debated back and forth, but the concern is still there.
Mercury, too, has been linked to a decline in brain function. It can pass the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain, and studies have found elevated levels of the metal in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients. In 2010, researchers reviewed a number of studies and found that in 32 out of 40 of those testing memory and mercury exposure, results showed significant memory deficits.
Cadmium is yet another toxic heavy metal, and studies have linked it to Alzheimer’s disease. In 2016, they looked at data for over 4,000 participants aged 60 years and older. They found that compared to those with low blood cadmium levels, those with high levels had a 3.83-fold higher increased risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease. They concluded that environmental exposure to cadmium could be a risk factor for the disease.
What to do: It’s near impossible to avoid exposure to all heavy metals, as they are found throughout our environment and in the products we use every day. To protect yourself, first of all, don’t smoke and try to stay away from cigarette smoke and e-cigarette vapors as much as you can. Both are sources of cadmium.
Reduce your intake of high-mercury fish, including swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and bigeye tuna. Protect yourself from air pollution and traffic fumes, and consider getting a water filter to make sure that your tap water is free of heavy metals. You can also have your water tested for their presence.
Consider using a non-aluminum deodorant, or reduce your exposure by using a safer deodorant on certain days. Use stainless steel, copper, glass, or iron cookware instead of aluminum pots and pans, and don’t buy soda in aluminum cans.
Next, be careful about which lipsticks you buy, as the FDA found lead in many of them. Buy your products from safer brands. (To see a list of the brands with lead in them, see the FDA’s website.) Get your home tested for lead, particularly if you live in an older home built before lead was removed from wall paint (built prior to 1978). In addition, choose furniture items that are free of flame-retardants (which can contain cadmium).
Finally, to protect yourself from any heavy metals you may have already been exposed to, try these steps:
- Drink plenty of water (to help flush them out).
- Eat a diet rich in antioxidants, as this help protects against oxidative damage from heavy metals.
- Eat a fiber-rich diet, to keep your digestion moving and to help reduce the risk of heavy metal absorption.
- Eat more probiotics, such as those in yogurt and kefir, as they can help keep heavy metals from causing damage in the body.
- Eat more healthy fats, like those in walnuts and avocados, as they help the body get rid of those heavy metals.
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