A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does exposure to aluminum cause Alzheimer's disease?

November 18, 1983

Dear Cecil:

What's the straight dope on the aluminum-senility link? Is it true that deodorants and/or antiperspirants cause brain damage if they get in your bloodstream?

Cecil replies:

Funny you should bring this up, V., because I just happen to have clipped an article on the subject out of American Health, a magazine no self-respecting health paranoid should be without. Aluminum, it seems, is suspected of playing a role in Alzheimer's disease, a form of degenerative senile dementia thought to afflict 5-10 percent of all persons over 65. Victims of Alzheimer's have been found to have four times the normal concentration of aluminum in their brain cells. Aluminum is known to be a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage if you're exposed to it in sufficiently large amounts. The question is whether chronic exposure to small amounts can affect you. Despite lots of research, we still don't know. But several studies have shown that people exposed to higher-than-average amounts of aluminum tend to have higher rates of Alzheimer's.

It's obvious aluminum isn't the sole cause of Alzheimer's disease, since many people don't contract it, even in environments where they're exposed to high amounts of aluminum. In fact, there's some indication that a predisposition to the disease may be hereditary. Thus if one of your forebears had Alzheimer's, you may have inherited some genetic kink that makes you especially vulnerable to aluminum poisoning.

In any case, aluminum isn't easy to avoid. You can probably dump your aluminum cookware without too much trouble, but you'll find aluminum is also contained in many common antacids and antiperspirants. I note, for example, that my friendly bottle of Ban Basic here contains aluminum chloride and aluminum chlorhydrate. (Granted, you can now get aluminum-free deodorants.) Even more insidious, aluminum is added to many municipal water supplies to help remove floating debris. Aluminum is also found in household baking powder, self-rising flour, cake mix, pancake batter, and frozen dough (as sodium aluminum phosphate, a leavening agent); in nondairy creamers, table salt, and other powdered foods (as an anticaking ingredient); in processed cheese (as an emulsifier); and in hemorrhoid preparations (up to 50 percent aluminum hydroxide). The known human requirement for aluminum, you may be interested to know, is absolutely zero. Have a nice day, kids.

See Cecil's later column on this subject: What's the latest on the link between aluminum and Alzheimer's disease?

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