Another problem is that the topic simply fell out of favor. As Alzheimer’s disease researchers pursued more easily testable avenues for understanding the disease, such as its genetic risk factors and its formation of brain plaques (instead of the tangles), aluminum fell by the wayside, Savory says.
“It became very, very difficult to get funding to work on aluminum. As soon as you mentioned aluminum, you’re dismissed with ‘Oh, that hypothesis was disproven years ago,’ ” Savory says.“But it has not been disproven. The truth is, nobody knows.”
Perl also met with difficulty in funding his aluminum research, and he eventually shifted his efforts to the link between trauma and neurodegenerative diseases. Although he doesn’t — and never did — believe that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s disease, he says that it may be involved somehow in the disease’s progression and that not investigating this may put Alzheimer’s research at a disadvantage.
“We don’t know what causes diabetes, for example, but we can treat it,” Perl says. “So just because something isn’t the . . . direct cause of a disease doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
But Borenstein believes aluminum’s contribution to Alzheimer’s risk is too small to warrant a lot of research. “If aluminum plays any role, it’s very small,” she says. “And there are many other, much more important risk factors to study.”
These other factors include genes as well as metabolic and vascular disease — things such as diabetes and heart disease — that studies have shown are strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease; level of intellectual stimulation and educational attainment; and social engagement. These factors may one day help researchers treat and even prevent the disease, Borenstein says.
So where does this leave a concerned consumer? You can try to limit your aluminum consumption by choosing aluminum-free products, Perl says, “but we don’t really understand enough about [aluminum’s possible association with Alzheimer’s disease] to make good recommendations.”
For what it’s worth, Perl and Borenstein haven’t replaced their cookware, changed their antiperspirants or given up using aluminum foil. Savory hasn’t, either, though he does make a point of drinking water only from his own well, which he says contains considerably lower levels of aluminum than his town’s water supply.
Avoiding all aluminum isn’t possible, because the metal is so ubiquitous. If Alzheimer’s is your worry, you’re better off making sure to keep your mind active and your heart healthy, Borenstein says. In the long run, these steps will do far more to protect your brain.