Does moisturizer REALLY cut dementia risk? Study claims healing dry skin reduces chemicals linked to the disease – but that does not mean lotion prevents Alzheimer’s, expert warns
- Alzheimer’s experts think inflammation and immune cells called cytokines may contribute to dementia-causing brain damage
- The skin is the largest organ in the body and reduces many cytokines when it is inflammed
- But older skin doesn’t retain enough moisture to let inflammation-reducing cytokines do their job
- The result is an excess of the immunity chemicals, which get into the blood and brain
- University of California, San Francisco, researchers found that when older people moisturized, they had lower levels of cytokines in their blood
- But an Alzheimer’s expert cautions that this doesn’t (necessarily) mean lotion lowers Alzheimer’s risks
Keeping your skin soft with moisturizer may help keep your brain healthy too, suggests new research linking skin care to reduced risks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Inflammation has become a hot topic in the field of Alzheimer’s research in recent years. Scientists now believe that chemicals called cytokines, which are released to repair inflamed areas, may contribute to Alzheimer’s.
As we age, the skin starts to degrade and becomes inflamed. The skin is the largest organ of the body, so even minor skin inflammation attracts high levels of cytokines.
The skin is the largest organ of the body, so even minor inflammation – in the form of red or dry skin – could generate high levels of the immunity chemicals.
But moisturizer can help to keep skin strong and repaired even when cytokines can’t, helping to reduce inflammation – and perhaps levels of the chemicals that raise Alzheimer’s risks, the new University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study suggests.
Moisturizing skin helps to reduce levels of immune chemicals believed to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease and may help reduce risks of dementia, a new study suggests
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the US – and will likely climb the ranks here and abroad as populations age.
One in 10 American adults has Alzheimer’s disease, yet its cause and cure are still very unclear.
The prevailing current theories point to the accumulation of destructive protein plaques in the brain and inflammation as crucial underlying components of Alzheimer’s that may even be causal.
In fact, scientists increasingly suspect that inflammation is involved in a host of chronic diseases.
Inflammation is a crucial part of the body’s immune response.
The inflammatory response causes threatened or damaged tissues to swell to help flush out and isolate a possible cause of the problem and acts like a distress call to immunity chemicals that fight infection and repair damages.
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Among the rescue cells that come rushing are cytokines. Normally, cytokines help to reduce inflammation and repair damage, but if the damage can’t be repaired they keep circulating and can become destructive.
Older skin is harder to repair in part because it generally doesn’t retain moisture as well, meaning it can’t rid itself of problematic pathogens.
So cytokines keep pumeling away at the skin, trying to fix something beyond their capacity for repair. Eventually, some of that deluge of cytokines can get into the blood stream and even make its way into the brain.
There, cytokines throw a number of neurochemicals out of whack and scientists think they may inadvertently boost the production of the damaging amyloid beta plaques typical of Alzheimer’s.
And researchers have observed elevated cytokine levels in patients with Alzheimer’s (as well as other forms of dementia).
Even minor skin inflammation can trigger a long and significant cytokine defensive.
And the skin is an enormous organ, meaning that even the slightest change in it can introduce a significant quantity of cytokines, working away at inflammation to no avail.
But since water is a key reason that the cytokines can’t do their job, the scientists at UCSF suspected that helping keep the skin moist and healthy might help reduce circulating cytokines.
They recruited 33 older people to be ‘treated’ daily with moisturizer for a month, and compared them to un-moisturized older people and a cohort of young volunteers.
In the older moisturizer-using group, the scientists saw that levels of two cytokines that have been linked to Alzheimer’s dropped back to a ‘normalized’ level and a third type of cytokine’s levels ‘declined substantially.’
There’s something inherently exciting about such a simple and available ‘treatment’ seeming to have completely new potential – but experts caution against getting too caught up in that promise.
‘To put it in simple terms: Mr A might know Mr B, and Mr B might know Mr C. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Mr C knows Mr A,’ explains Dr James Ellison, Swank Foundation Endowed Chair in Memory Care and Geriatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware.
In other words, the study shows that moisturizer reduces cytokines, and we know these cytokines are related to Alzheimer’s, but that doesn’t mean (necessarily) that moisturizer reduces risks of Alzheimer’s.
But it might.
This is not the first time that Alzheimer’s and the skin have been linked, Dr Ellison notes. People with dry skin and skin conditions like rosacea and psoriasis are at higher risk for dementias, including Alzheimer’s.
‘But it’s unclear if the increased risk is from inflammation or the autoimmune [nature of psoriasis],’ says Dr Ellison.
‘No study I’m aware of says that moist skin reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The hope for these researchers is that moist skin reduces cytokines that are involved with diseases of aging – one of which is Alzheimer’s.’
In the meantime, he says we are better off reducing our Alzheimer’s risks by making more well-demonstrated lifestyle changes, like exercising, getting adequate sleep, being socially engaged and eating healthy diets, like the Mediterranean or MIND ones.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead and lotion up.
‘Good skin is its own reward n terms of reducing itching and redness,’ Dr Ellison says.
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