Study finds people over 65 absorb more aluminum

September 22, 1992|By Los Angeles Daily News

Los Angeles -- It's the most abundant metal on the planet, making up 8 percent of the Earth's crust. It is found in everything from spinach to tea leaves, toothpaste to corn bread.

But some researchers think that aluminum, an all-purpose metal, is linked to Alzheimer's disease, a progressive, degenerative disease that leaves people with impaired memory, thinking and behavior.

Researchers have failed to discover a cause for the disease, which afflicts an estimated 4 million Americans. There is no known cure.

A recent study released by researchers in England has renewed debate among scientists on whether Americans should limit the amount of aluminum they eat.

Officials with the Food and Drug Administration said they cannot comment on the latest findings pending further study. Because of consumer concerns, the FDA reviewed the link between aluminum and Alzheimer's in 1986 and announced that normal dietary intake of aluminum, whether from naturally occurring levels in food, the use of aluminum cookware, or aluminum food additives was not harmful, said Emil Corwin, spokesman for the FDA.

"There isn't enough evidence to support the allegations that aluminum poses any risk to human health," Mr. Corwin said.

Researchers with MRC Neurochemical Pathology Department at Newcastle General Hospital in England gave water containing normal levels of aluminum citrate to healthy people among all age groups. They found that people under 65 absorbed very little of the metal.

But the amount absorbed by people over age 65 increased dramatically, the study found. People in their 80s absorbed five times more aluminum than people in their 20s, the study said.

"All this information leads one to be concerned about the aluminum people ingest," said Donald D. McLachlan, professor of physiology and medicine and director of the Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Toronto.

Mr. McLachlan was not part of the English study, but he has studied the link between Alzheimer's and aluminum for more than 20 years.

Mr. McLachlan suggests that aluminum ingestion should be reduced to 3 milligrams, particularly for people over age 70.

People consume about 10 to 15 milligrams of aluminum a day, Mr. McLachlan said. Some reach levels as high as 80 milligrams a day.

Aluminum is found naturally in many foods such as tea leaves, spinach, herbs, spices and potatoes. It is used to purify water. In cosmetics, such as lipstick, aluminum is added to make colors brighter. It also can be found in deodorants, in toothpaste as an abrasive to clean teeth and in antacids and buffered aspirin as a buffer to neutralize stomach acid. It is used in many foods as a dye or an anti-caking agent. It gives pickles their crunch.

Although abundant, the metal serves no purpose to the human body, scientists say. In fact, most is excreted through the kidneys.

"It's interesting that we don't use aluminum biologically," said Daniel Perl, director of neuropathology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, who has been studying the possible connection for more than 15 years.

Mr. Perl said people need to be aware of how much aluminum they consume.

But officials with the Aluminum Association, the FDA and the Los Angeles Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association believe there is not enough evidence to cause alarm or even concern.

"There is no conclusive evidence that aluminum causes Alzheimer's disease," said Peter Braun, executive director of the Alzheimer's group.

The Aluminum Association, which said it has spent millions on research, doesn't believe there is a connection between normal human exposure to aluminum and Alzheimer's, said spokesman Jim Plumb.

"We believe our product is a safe product," Mr. Plumb said. "But . . . we are not going to make light of this. We are still going to continue to do research until something more conclusive is found."

High concentrations of aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer's victims first were discovered in the early 1970s by Mr. McLachlan.

No one knows how or why it gets into the brain. Mr. McLachlan suggests that the aluminum is an opportunistic invader that finds its way to the brain after damage has been caused to the brain's blood barrier. This often is caused during the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Perl said he is not advocating that people throw their %J aluminum pans away.

"I have one in my house that I rarely use, but, when I do, my hand isn't shaking," he said. "But we can't ignore the findings. I'm concerned, but I don't want people to panic."

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