By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
In 1901, a young doctor in a small town in Frankfurt, Germany noticed something unusual about a patient. The patient, a 50-year old woman named "Augusta D.", had been assigned to the psychiatric hospital by her husband after she began showing symptoms that included paranoia, crying, aggression, forgetfulness and confusion. The symptoms had come on fast and with increasing intensity.
Quickly following her admission to the hospital, her symptoms progressed. Within a short 5 years of her admission, the woman was dead. The young doctor had never seen any other case like it. What mental disease could cause these symptoms and lead so quickly to a patient's death?
Unable to forget what he had seen, the doctor ordered an autopsy of the patient's brain. What he saw astonished him. The tissues of the patient's brain had odd tangles and plaque formations. The doctor carefully noted the unique tangles and plaques as well as the symptoms the patients had shown leading up to her death.
That young doctor was Alois Alzheimer's, and so began the chronicling of the disease that would later bear his same --- Alzheimer's disease.
Perhaps Alzheimer's disease existed prior to its discovery and naming in 1903. But what is known is that in the 113 years since its discovery, the reported cases of Alzheimer's have climbed almost astronomically.
Today, American develops Alzheimer's disease every 66 seconds. The Centers for Disease Control predicts that that rate will double by 2050, at which time an American will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's every 33 seconds.
Alzheimer's is different from other chronic diseases. Over the past dozen years or so, between 2000 and 2013, the rates and incidences of every other major disease has fallen, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Breast cancer cases have fallen 2%. Prostate cancer cases have fallen 11%. Heart disease cases have fallen 14%. Stroke cases have fallen 23%. HIV cases have fallen 52%.
But Alzheimer's cases have climbed 71%.
Why are the number of Alzheimer cases increasing? Scientists have a few theories.
Pollution Is Causing More Alzheimer's Cases
Air pollution appears hazy to the naked eye. But under a microscope, scientists can differentiate the exact types of particles, their shapes and make-up.
Air pollution created from industry and diesel cars contains particles of a compound called "magnetite".
Magnetite is a toxic mineral that causes the type of oxidative stress in the brain associated with a high risk for Alzheimer's. When it occurs naturally in your brain, magnetite is angular shaped. However, when caused by pollution, magnetite is spherical-shaped.
In 2016, scientists from Lancaster University studying the brains of people who have died from Alzheimer's noticed that their brains contain far more particles of magnetite than the brains of people without the disease. The people with Alzheimer's disease lived in either Mexico City or in Manchester, cities both plagued by heavy pollution.
The sizes of the particles of magnetite caused by pollution are up to 150 nanometers. This is important because particles under 200 nanometers in size can pass directly into your brain from air breathed in through your nose.
The increasing levels of pollution found in the United States and elsewhere around the world thus might explain the steep upward trend line in Alzheimer's cases.
It could be that we are literally "breathing in" Alzheimer's disease.
Is Sugar Causing the Increase in Alzheimer's Cases?
America is on a sugar high. We are among the heaviest consumers of all types of sugar. We are also among the most overweight and diabetes-plagued, but that's a subject for another day.
In addition to ballooning our bodies, sugar consumption is responsible for another, even more destructive pattern --- the rate of oxidative stress and inflammation in our bodies.
Oxidative stress has long been associated with increasing risk for Alzheimer's disease. A 2009 study from Universitat Internacional de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain observed that Alzheimer's is marked by the presence of " advance glycation end products".
These glycation end products need sugar to form.
As the scientists noted " Advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are formed by a non-enzymatic reaction of sugars with long lived protein deposits, are also potent neurotoxins and proinflammatory molecules."
But the relationship between the amount of sugar you eat and Alzheimer's is more complex than you might think.
Your brain actually depends on sugar to work.
In fact, as scientists from Weill Cornell Medical College, New York have noted, your brain needs about a quarter pound of glucose --- blood sugar --- each day to do its work. You can get this amount of blood sugar from many different types of food: bread and other grains, fruits and even vegetables are converted to blood sugar after you eat them.
The Weill Cornell 2016 study entitled " Sugar and Alzheimer's: A Bittersweet Truth" suggests that it is your body's inability to transport glucose across the blood-brain barrier which leads to a type of "brain starvation" and ultimately to Alzheimer's.
Could it be that eating too much sugar indirectly damages the proteins needed to transport sugar safely across the blood-brain barrier?
To get glucose to your brain across the blood-brain barrier, your body uses a special protein called "GLUT1 "as a transport ship.
Does having diabetes or too high blood sugar levels impair GLUT1? It does in pregnant mice. Hyperglycemic mice (those with super high levels of blood sugar) saw the levels of GLUT1 in their embryos fall by between 49% and 66%.
We will need to have many more studies done to better understand the link between sugar consumption and Alzheimer's. But for now, we cannot say that eating too much sugar causes Alzheimer's.
In fact, there is evidence that entering a state of "low blood sugar" may increase your risk for Alzheimer's.
A 2013 study of 783 patients with diabetes over a 12-year period found that those who had suffered from hypoglycemia were twice as likely to go on to develop Alzheimer's disease.
That 2013 study, led by Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco, found that diabetic patients who experienced hypoglycemia had a 34% chance of also developing Alzheimer's while only 17% of those who did not experience hypoglycemia went on to develop Alzheimer's.
At this point, the most reasonable approach seems to be to avoid becoming diabetic or developing hypoglycemia.
Monitor your blood sugar to keep it within the band of normal. For it seems that "starving" your brain of sugar is perhaps as dangerous as feeding it too much sugar. Prefer to get your "sugar" from fruits, vegetables and whole grains rather than sweets.