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Posted: July 15, 2009

Are Nitrates 'Smoking Gun' for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Diabetes Deaths?

Research scientists say they have discovered a significant link between increased levels of nitrates in the environment and in food with higher death rates from some of the most common diseases among the elderly, including Alzheimer's, diabetes and Parkinson's.

Dr. Suzanne de la Monte, of Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, and colleagues studied trends in mortality rates triggered by diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cerebrovascular disease, as well as HIV. Results of their efforts were published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.


The researchers found strong parallels between age-adjusted increases in death rate from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes and the progressive increases in human exposure to nitrates, nitrites and nitrosamines through processed and preserved foods as well as fertilizers. Other diseases -- including HIV-AIDS, cerebrovascular disease, and leukemia -- did not exhibit those trends. De la Monte and the authors conclude that the increase in exposure plays a critical role in the cause, development and effects of these insulin-resistant diseases.


Nitrites and nitrates belong to a class of chemical compound that has been found to be harmful to humans and animals. More than 90% of these compounds, when tested, were found to be carcinogenic in various organs. Yet, they are found in many food products, including fried bacon, cured meats and cheese products, as well as beer and water. Exposure also occurs through manufacturing and processing of rubber and latex products, as well as fertilizers, pesticides and cosmetics.


De la Monte, who is also a professor of pathology and lab medicine at Brown University in Providence, says, "We have become a 'nitrosamine generation.' In essence, we have moved to a diet that is rich in amines and nitrates, which lead to increased nitrosamine production. We receive increased exposure through the abundant use of nitrate-containing fertilizers for agriculture."


She continues, "Not only do we consume them in processed foods, but they get into our food supply by leeching from the soil and contaminating water supplies used for crop irrigation, food processing and drinking."


Nitrosamines are formed by a chemical reaction between nitrites or other proteins. Sodium nitrite is deliberately added to meat and fish to prevent toxin growth; it is also used to preserve, color and flavor meats. Ground beef, cured meats and bacon in particular contain abundant amounts of amines due to their high protein content. Because of the significant levels of added nitrates and nitrites, nitrosamines are nearly always detectable in these foods. Nitrosamines are also easily generated under strong acid conditions, such as in the stomach, or at high temperatures associated with frying or flame broiling. Reducing sodium nitrite content reduces nitrosamine formation in foods.


Nitrosamines basically become highly reactive at the cellular level, which then alters gene expression and causes DNA damage. The Rhode Island researchers note that the role of nitrosamines has been well-studied, and their role as a carcinogen has been fully documented. They surmise that the cellular alterations that occur as a result of nitrosamine exposure are basically similar to those that occur with aging, as well as with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and type 2 diabetes.


"All of these diseases are associated with increased insulin resistance and DNA damage,” says de la Monte. “Their prevalence rates have all increased radically over the past several decades and show no sign of plateau. Because there has been a relatively short time interval associated with the dramatic shift in disease incidence and prevalence rates, we believe this is due to exposure-related rather than genetic etiologies."


The researchers recognize that higher death rates naturally occur in older age groups. Yet when the researchers compared mortality from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's among 75- to 84-year-olds from 1968 to 2005, the death rates increased much more dramatically than for cerebrovascular and cardiovascular disease, which are also aging-associated. For example, in Alzheimer's patients, the death rate increased 150-fold, from zero deaths to more than 150 deaths per 100,000. Parkinson's death rates also increased across all age groups. However, mortality rates from cerebrovascular disease in the same age group declined, even though this is a disease associated with aging as well.


De la Monte notes, "Because of the similar trending in nearly all age groups within each disease category, this indicates that these overall trends are not due to an aging population,” notes de la Monte. “This relatively short time interval for such dramatic increases in death rates associated with these diseases is more consistent with exposure-related causes rather than genetic changes."


She adds: "Moreover, the strikingly higher and climbing mortality rates in older age brackets suggest that aging and/or longer durations of exposure have greater impacts on progression and severity of these diseases."


The findings indicate that while nitrogen-containing fertilizer consumption increased by 230% between 1955 and 2005, its usage doubled between 1960 and 1980, just prior to the insulin-resistant epidemics the researchers found. They also found that sales from popular fast food chains and a major meat processing company they studied increased more than 8-fold from 1970 to 2005, and grain consumption increased 5-fold.


The study authors say the timeline of the increased prevalence rates of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes cannot be explained on the basis of gene mutations. They instead mirror the classical trends of exposure-related disease. Because nitrosamines produce biochemical changes within cells and tissues, it is conceivable that chronic exposure to low levels of nitrites and nitrosamines through processed foods, water and fertilizers is responsible for the current epidemics of these diseases and the increasing mortality rates associated with them.

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