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Dietary Theory of Alzheimer’s

A provocative theory published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition attempts to explain the dramatic rise in Alzheimer’s disease

October 20, 2010 |
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One of the great remaining medical mysteries is what’s behind the dramatic rise in Alzheimer’s disease. In a century we basically went from no Alzheimer’s to the 7th leading cause of death in the United States, currently afflicting 5 million Americans. A provocative theory was published last year in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
Alzheimers has become an epidemic. 1 in 10 of us in our 60’s. 1 in 5 of us in our 70’s, and nearly 1 in 3 of us in our 80s will develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Some say it’s just because we have an aging population, but if you go back and look at the data, prior to about 100 years ago, there was no evidence of Alzheimer’s—no matter how old you were. And even now, it’s really only a major problem in the developed world. The elderly in India and Africa, for example, are spared this disease. When we look at the epidemiology we should be, shocked.
We have allowed something in our environment to steal the minds of our elderly, at a terrible cost. As a people we should be outraged—frightened, and frantically searching for what’s in the environment that’s causing this terrible onslaught. But instead the scientific community seems to be passively letting this happen. There is not much research in this area. Most efforts, frankly, are coming up with drugs to try to treat it rather than try to prevent it in the first place.
Given the link between meat eating and dementia, some scientists have suggested a prion theory, maybe Alzheimer’s is some human variant of mad cow disease. We certainly are eating more beef, but this new researcher is skeptical, believing the real cause to be something else in our developed environment, namely copper toxicity. Interestingly, that could explain any meat/Alzheimer’s connection, because meat eating may contribute to copper toxicity—remember the U.S. meat shipment that Mexico refused to let in? That was for copper contamination.
This reseracher blames three things that developed countries have done over the last half century or so: started using copper plumbing for our water supply, started taking lots of supplements—like multivitamins with copper, and started eating too much meat. So he suggests we test our water for copper, throw out any supplements with copper in them, and then, in terms of diet to prevent Alzheimers, number 3, reduce meat intake, since the copper in meat is much better absorbed. So yeah, blaming meat may actuallybe right—but, this new theory goes, it’s not prions, the damaging agent in meat may be copper.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by veganmontreal.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. And check out the other videos on Alzheimer's disease. Also, there are 1,686 other subjects covered in the rest of my videos--please feel free to explore them as well!

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: Harvard’s Meat and Mortality StudiesAlzheimer's Disease: Up to half of cases potentially preventable, and  Natural Alzheimer’s Treatment.

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/rami/ Rami

    Copper, eh? Hm. I’m a vegan “nutritarian” in the Joel Fuhrman mold. I track my nutritional intake and my copper intake is always 300-500% the RDI. Should I be worried? Mushrooms are very high in copper; I try to have about 100 g a day because they are so high in lysine and B vitamins. Or should I just hope that copper from plants is not well absorbed, so despite the megadoses of copper I am getting, it won’t lead to trouble down the road?

    • Scott

      I, too, am a nutritarian and would like to know if you’ve found an answer to this question

  • JJ

    I saw this video about the same time that I took a trip to our local farmer’s market. I asked a person in one booth whether or not his food was organic. He said “such and such is, but such and such is not, but we don’t add pesticides”. I wanted to be clear, and used a phrase that I had seen in another booth: “Oh, you are spray-free?” He said, “No, nobody is spray-free. Nothing would grow if we were spray-free. We just use organically approved sprays, such as copper.”

    Then I saw this video about copper and a potential link to altzheimers. Any thoughts about how much copper is in organic foods and whether or not this should be a concern? And if so, are some organic crops given more copper than others???

    Thanks!

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/drdons/ DrDons

      I don’t worry too much about the amount of copper in organic fruits and vegetables. The human body has mechanisms to avoid problems with copper unless exposure to a large amount over time or in the case of Wilson’s Disease( a rare inherited condition that causes build up of copper in the body).

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/lilytree/ lilytree

    JJ, that is disturbing information. I did a Google search and found that indeed, copper spraying is a standard organic agricultural practice. Many of our water pipes are also made of copper. Zinc, commonly deficient in vegans, helps keep copper levels from getting too high… Dr. Gregor, what are your thoughts on this? Do you know if we should be concerned here?

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/sonarlily/ sonarlily

    Dr. Greger, what about copper IUD’s? I can’t find any studies about this this; just anecdotal information. I’m thinking about getting mine removed because of the copper toxicity issue, though I have no other pressing reason to do so. :(

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/drdons/ DrDons

      All forms of contraception contain risk and have to weighed against the risk of pregnancy. I also couldn’t find any studies on it. There is a free online review article on the copper IUD’s available through PubMed if you are interested. The article is by Bliss Kaneshiro and Tod Aeby, Long-term safety, efficacy, and patient acceptability of the intrauterine Copper T-380A contraceptive device Int J Womens Health. 2010; 2: 211–220. The article doesn’t mention any systemic difficulties with the copper. Hope this helps. Be well.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/kdahlin/ KDahlin

    I found this paper: “Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia in developing
    countries: prevalence, management, and risk factors” published in The Lancet in 2008 and it has a map showing distribution of Alzheimer’s Disease in the world. It does show that it’s low in India and a few other places but the authors of this paper describe it as being absent in the developing countries, which is clearly not the case. I’m confused. These authors got their information from a paper by Waldman and Lamb. I guess I’ll try and track that down.

  • Mike

    Dr Greger:  Love the site and love the info–it’s inspiring my wife and me to make healthier choices (we’re both long time vegans for moral reasons).  I’m concerned about how strongly you state that Alzheimer’s is a first world problem or one that did not exist prior to 100 years ago.  I can’t imagine the level of evidence that would be required to back up such strong assertions.  My wife’s Grandmother died of Alzheimer’s.  She was born and raised in Trinidad and was a life time lacto vegetarian.  Her family moved her to Canada for medical care when she was in her 70s because she had become senile and was unable to live on her own.  In Canada she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.   It’s not unheard of for elderly people in Trinidad who have limited access to medical care to become senile.  Many of them probably have undiagnosed Alzheimer’s.  

    • Mike

      Correction on the diet listed above–I got the sides of the family mixed up.  My paternal Grandmother in law was not a vegetarian.  

  • Michael Greger M.D.
  • Michael Greger M.D.

    For some context, please check out my associated blog post Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies!

  • http://www.facebook.com/michel.voss1 Michel Voss

    Regulation of Brain Iron and Copper Homeostasis by Brain Barrier Systems: Implication in Neurodegenerative Diseases.Pharmacol Ther. 2012 February; 133(2): 177–188. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268876/

  • http://www.animalliberationaction.org/ Brandon Becker

    Some critics of veganism say that vegan diets have too much copper
    (potentially leading to copper toxicity) and also that there is not
    enough zinc in vegan diets to offset the copper intake. Is there any
    validity to this?

  • Rakim Dejuan Westmoreland

    is there a significantly higher concentration of copper in low quality meat products versus “good” quality meats?

  • TheGardenAddict .

    all heavy metals can lead to increased oxidative stress in the brain, not just copper. Aluminum is also much more prevalent in our environment. Some believe it due to chemtrails where aluminum and barium particulates are sprayed into the air. Also, vaccines and antiperspirants contain aluminum. Seems like all diseases are caused by eating meat, according you Dr. Greger. Since meat is higher in zinc, it may also help to chelate excess copper from our bodies. Meat is not necessary to do this, other foods are high in zinc, such as oysters, pumpkin seeds and dark chocolate. Personally, I take supplements. Zinc is necessary to rid the body of excess copper and excess heavy metals. Glutathione also protects us from heavy metals.

  • Darryl

    Just published:

    Singh, Itender, et al. “Low levels of copper disrupt brain amyloid-β homeostasis by altering its production and clearance.” PNAS 110.36 (2013): 14771-14776.PDF

  • Teale Niles

    http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-10753/the-surprising-ways-grains-are-destroying-your-brain.html
    This article says to drastically reduce carbohydrates in our diet to avoid dementia. This would of course mean increasing meat intake in order to get adequate calories. How do I know if this research is valid? How do we know it’s not just PROCESSED grains that are harmful? If I keep eating my steal cut oats with flax and fruit and avoid flour and sugar produces, will I really still be at risk for Alzheimer’s? I get 60-80% of my calories from carbs. Often I’m eating 10x the amount of carbs this MD suggests. And perhaps the issue is really our omega fatty acid balance. We know our diets are too high in Omega 6 and lacking Omega 3. This doctor has me puzzled. I do avoid gluten. But only because I did an ellimination diet and found out it triggers my excema. For those who are not allergic to it (sure wish I wasn’t) I think wheat can be a totally wholesome food. Also, he talks about aerobics, but what about weight lifting? How can we do that much aerobic exercise without carbs? And resistance training is just as important isn’t it? Aerobics without weights could cause us to have a lower metabolism, couldn’t it? And if we ever went back to eating carbs we would likely start putting on the pounds. That’s definitely a health risk. What would be a helpful way for me to interperate this article? Thank you for your help!!

  • Flo

    Now Carbohydrates? What’s a person to do or believe? Is this a fact? partial fact? or fiction?
    http://www.doctoroz.com/episode/do-carbs-cause-alzheimers

    • Thea

      Flo: Concerning “What’s a person to do or believe?”
      I think the first thing to understand is that Dr. Oz’s show is great entertainment, not good medical information. The information on the show constantly contradicts itself, sometimes even within the same show. It is a good platform for people to advertize their message and products, but the information is not vetted in any responsible way.

      I highly recommend the following book for knowing the latest credible information about avoiding alzehimers and having all-around good brain health:

      “Power Foods For The brain” by Dr. Neal Barnard.

      http://www.amazon.com/Power-Foods-Brain-Effective-Strengthen/dp/1455512206/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1389996614

      Good luck.

  • Skeptic

    Could you comment on this journal article?

    Roberts R, Roberts L, Petersen R, et al. Relative Intake of Macronutrients Impacts Risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment or Dementia. Journal Of Alzheimer’s Disease [serial online]. December 26, 2012;32(2):329-339. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 15, 2014.

    It seems to suggest that diets high in carbs encourage Alzheimer’s?

    Thanks

  • bruxe

    At the following link: http://kalw.org/post/alzheimers-blood-test-raises-ethical-questions studies of elderly people yielded results enough for these researchers to say:

    >> We discovered that 10 blood lipids [fats] predicted
    >> whether someone would go on to develop cognitive
    >> impairment or Alzheimer’s.

    http://www.alz.org/research/science/earlier_alzheimers_diagnosis.asp

    What I am wondering is if Dr. Greger has heard about this and if there is any way to associate these 10 blood lipids with animal fats?

  • Healthy

    How about aluminum ending up in the brain from all the acid drinks which include soft drinks and beer which are provided from the aluminum in aluminum cans? Whether it is copper, iron, and/or aluminum, metals do not do justice to the brain and are difficult to get out. Correct me if I am wrong!