Aluminum is all around us: in cookware, beauty products, vaccines... Does it cause Alzheimer's or drive dementia risk? Read on for a deep dive into the research.
Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating form of dementia, affecting millions of people worldwide, but despite decades of research, the disease’s exact cause — or causes — are still unknown. This persistent gap in our understanding of where Alzheimer’s comes from has given rise to all kinds of theories, some backed by gold-standard clinical research, and others… not so credible. One rumor about Alzheimer’s that continues to make its rounds concerns a possible link between aluminum exposure and the development of Alzheimer’s. Where did this concept come from — and is there actually any legitimate, proven, scientific evidence behind it?
The Alzheimer’-aluminum hypothesis debunked
Aluminum is a ubiquitous element in everyday life. It’s the most abundant metal in Earth’s crust, and we encounter it daily. It’s used in various products, from food packaging to construction materials. It comes in different forms, and they interact with the human body differently. The idea that this ever-present element could be linked to Alzheimer’s disease gained attention in the 1960s.
In 1965, scientists fed large amounts of the element aluminum to rabbits in a lab, and found it led to an increase in neurofibrillary tangles. Firstly, however, it’s important to note that the experiment was done in rabbits, not humans — and animal study results (especially non-primate studies) rarely translate to humans, as our brains are so very different. If humans ate aluminum, would it be harmful to them, and would we ever be consuming it in vast enough quantities to have any effect at all?
These questions were the subject of intensive research following the rabbit study, but large-scale, gold-standard studies have failed again and again to establish any association bewteen Alzheimer’s and aluminum. Gradually, the scientific community abandoned the theory, and the 1965 rabbit study was just the notorious start of yet another Alzheimer’s myth with a very long tail.
“There have also been reports that the brains of some people with dementia had high levels of metals such as aluminum. But no one has found a link,” chemist Oliver A.H. Jones, a professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, wrote in an investigation into the aluminum-Alzheimer’s link. “That’s probably where this myth came from. Even though there’s no credible evidence for this, it’s led some people to avoid aluminum cookware – and even drink cans.”
The myth has a couple offshoots — from cookware to vaccines. Let’s quickly take a closer look at each.
Myth 1: Aluminum cookware causes Alzheimer’s
One common belief is that using aluminum cookware can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. The theory suggests that aluminum from these pots and pans leaches into our food during cooking, leading to increased aluminum exposure.
Debunking Myth 1: While it’s true that trace amounts of aluminum may leach into food during cooking, studies have shown that the levels are minimal — and according to experts, including Jones, they’re not a cause for concern.
There have been issues with plain aluminum reacting to acidic and alkaline foods, or warping in the heat, Jones added, but these risks can be avoided by using anodised aluminum cookware.
Myth 2: Aluminum in antacids and deodorants is harmful
Another not-so-uncommon belief is that aluminum-containing antacids and deodorants can increase Alzheimer’s risk, as the aluminum is absorbed through the skin or gastrointestinal tract and accumulates in the brain.
Debunking Myth 2: The aluminum compounds used in antacids and deodorants are typically not the same as the ones found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
These products often contain different forms of aluminum that are less likely to be absorbed into the bloodstream and, thus, less likely to reach the brain. Out of all the research done on this rumor, one study from 1990 hinted that there might be a connection, but experts cited flaws in its methodology. Study into this question continued, but in the last 30-plus years, published, peer-reviewed, large-scale, clinical studies have not found any heightened risk of Alzheimer’s through the use of antacids and deodorants.
Myth 3: Aluminum salts in vaccines are problematic
There has also been misinformation shared widely that takes issue with aluminum salts, which are used as an adjuvant in some vaccines. Gold-standard, peer-reviewed research to date shows that the aluminum compounds used in vaccines have been found to be safe. These compounds are not the same as the aluminum that might be consumed in one’s diet — they’re unable to cross the blood-brain barrier to have any impact on the brain. Further, there is a wide consensus in the medical community that the benefits of vaccination in preventing infectious diseases outweigh potential risks associated with aluminum.
The research landscape into an aluminium-Alzheimer’s link
A number of studies have investigated the possible link between aluminum exposure and Alzheimer’s disease. The consensus among published, peer-reviewed research is that there is no convincing evidence at this time to support the idea that aluminum is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
While the aluminum-Alzheimer’s myth is not supported by scientific evidence, there are other metals that can affect our cognitive health, namely lead. Lead exposure and lead poisoning, especially in children, can result in significant health issues, including cognitive impairment. Experts recommend mitigating exposure to lead, particularly in older homes with lead-based paint.
Water quality, particularly the presence of heavy metals in water sources, is another factor that researchers are studying with regard to potential risks for cognitive health.
The bottom line on aluminum and dementia risk
Scientists are still exploring the bearing of lifestyle factors — including exercise, diet, exposure to pollution, and more — on the risk of facing cognitive decline on account of Alzheimer’s or a related form of dementia. But as of now, there are no established associations between aluminum and the build-up of Alzheimer’s biomarkers (like tau and amyloid proteins that can form tangles and plaques) in the brain. And when it comes to exposure to toxins, some may drive risk.
While it’s natural to be concerned about our health and the environment, experts recommend keeping the focus on the well-established risk factors for Alzheimer’s, such as age, familial history, risk-driving health conditions like diabetes and hypertension.
“We’re often bad at assessing risk,” Jones wrote. “The more we hear about an alleged risk, the more dangerous we tend to think it is – even when the actual risk is low. Fear of chemicals – chemophobia – is common, but many of these fears are unnecessary.”
“In short,” he added, “your cookware is safe. Enjoy your dinner. “