Dementia is often described as a death sentence because it currently has no cure and the progression of symptoms is inevitable. However, research continues to suggest the risk of developing brain decline is modifiable. Surprising risk factors have been tied to brain decline.
Doctor George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and senior author of the study, and his colleagues tested their hypothesis that elevated tissue iron caused the tissue breakdown associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
They targeted the vulnerable hippocampus, a key area of the brain involved in the formation of memories, and compared it to the thalamus, which is relatively spared by Alzheimer’s until the very late stages of disease.
The researchers used an MRI technique that can measure the amount of brain iron in ferritin, a protein that stores iron, in 31 patients with Alzheimer’s and 68 healthy control subjects.
In the presence of diseases like Alzheimer’s, as the structure of cells breaks down, the amount of water increases in the brain, which can mask the detection of iron, according to doctor Bartzokis.
“It is difficult to measure iron in tissue when the tissue is already damaged,” he said.
“But the MRI technology we used in this study allowed us to determine that the increase in iron is occurring together with the tissue damage. We found that the amount of iron is increased in the hippocampus and is associated with tissue damage in patients with Alzheimer’s but not in the healthy older individuals — or in the thalamus. So the results suggest that iron accumulation may indeed contribute to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.”
But the study also threw up some encouraging findings, doctor Bartzokis noted.
“The accumulation of iron in the brain may be influenced by modifying environmental factors, such as how much red meat and iron dietary supplements we consume and, in women, having hysterectomies before menopause,” he said.
How much iron to consume
According to the Department of Health and Social Care, most people should be able to get all the iron they need by eating a varied and balanced diet.
If you take iron supplements, do not take too much as this could be harmful.
“Taking 17mg or less a day of iron supplements is unlikely to cause any harm. But continue taking a higher dose if advised to by a GP,” advises the DHSC.