There may come a day soon when doctors warn patients who are middle-aged and older to stay away from vitamins containing iron unless they are deficient in iron. Iron is looking more and more to be the catalyst, or the flame, that ignites the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, according to recent research.
The UCLA study that mentions iron’s insidious role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease is in the August issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Researchers say that the findings should bring the medical community closer to an understanding of the disease.
The sixth leading cause of death among Americans is Alzheimer’s. If there is any method or way to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, such as the simple step of reducing iron intake as we age, we may be a step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s before it has the chance to begin.
What role does tau and beta-amyloid proteins play, in conjunction with iron, in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease?
Two proteins in our brains, tau and beta-amyloid, the medical community had long known, were twin triggers for Alzheimer’s disease. Tissue damage along with protein deposits in the hippocampus region of the brain, where memories are funneled, were discovered by conducting imaging studies on the brains of people who had Alzheimer’s.
Because of a buildup of defective tau or beta-amyloid proteins in this area of the brain, signature plaques associated with the disease result. These plaques then destroy tissue as well as disrupt the signaling between brain neurons.
But, we all have these twin proteins in our brains, and not all of us get Alheimer’s disease.
It’s when these proteins get damaged that tissue damage and protein deposits occur. What is it that causes the damage to the twin proteins?
According to Dr. George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and senior author of the new study:
We still weren’t aware of what was causing damage to these proteins.”
Now, we do know what’s causing the damage to the two proteins, thanks to the UCLA study.
Scientists who analyzed MRI results of the hppocampus region of the brains of people who had Alheimer’s disease learned that in the hippocampus region, the interaction of iron with amyloid proteins resulted in their toxicity to the brain. No such increase in iron levels or signs of tissue damage was seen in the thalamus.
The research study included thirty-one patients with Alzheimer’s and 68 healthy control subjects.
It was the deadly combination of these proteins along with high levels of iron, according to the scientists who conducted the study, that created a toxic or poisonous environment in the brain which led to Alzheimer’s disease.
In the words of Bartzokis:
The accumulation of amyloid is like gasoline, while excess iron is the flame. An excess of iron is destructive because it is a pro-oxidant metal, meaning it converts free radicals into highly reactive ones.”
Why do our brains accumulate iron as we age?
Myelin, an insulating layer that forms around nerves in the brain, provides the answer as to why our brains accumulate iron as we age.
Bartzokis explains why myelin is yet another key to expalining why iron is so bad for our brains as we age:
Myelin requires a lot of iron, and as we get older, more and more iron gets deposited, which promotes free radical damage. Once we reach old age, we have an awful lot of it floating around and the same process that kept your mind functioning now begins to undermine you. Now the environment in your brain is toxic.”
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and an estimated 5.2 million Americans suffer from it. The numbers of Americans who have Alzheimer’s disease are expected to increase as the U.S. population continues to get older.
How can we prevent or slow down the rate iron accumulates in our brains?
Adjusting our lifestyles in one of the ways we can prevent or slow down the rate iron accumulates in our brains. Simple steps such as eating less red meat, which is iron-rich, and staying away from iron supplements like multivitamins with iron as long as you’re not a person who is iron deficient are two important ways to cut down on the chances excess iron will accumulate in your brains, according to Bartzokis.
He stated that:
If you look at any multivitamin, they all have iron included. As if everyone is walking around with an iron deficiency. People are walking around with little destructive bombs in their bodies.”
Iron supplements, Bartzokis believes, should be made available only by prescription:
Iron takes years to accumulate. People take vitamins as if more is better, but it may actually be worse.”
Continuing on in the same vein, Bartzokis said of iron:
Young people need iron for brain development, but once you’re going into middle age, you have to really think about what vitamins you’re taking and whether they’re doing you any good. The problem with taking metals is that the body has no way of eliminating the excess other than bleeding.”
Iron, like that found in red meat, is essential for cell function, but too much of it can result in oxidant damage in the brain.
The medical community may very well have to rethink their approach to Alzheimer’s disease in light of the increasing evidence that an excess of iron is a major cause of some people developing this terrible disease. Iron could be the flame that ignites the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and cutting down on our consumption of this metal might be a key way to prevent our ever falling victim to it.
Written by: Douglas Cobb