Copper, Iron Implicated in Alzheimer’s
It's a bad week to be a heavy metal. Several reports and mental health articles just came out implicating both copper and iron as triggers for Alzheimer's Disease, a condition that afflicts over five million Americans.
The first report, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that copper might interfere with the brain's ability to eliminate a protein called beta amyloid.1 When beta amyloid builds up in the brain through the intake of dietary copper, or so the report postulates, it creates a plaque, and experts believe this plaque may cause dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. Although the "official" cause of Alzheimer's still remains a mystery, autopsies performed on patients who had dementia have found abnormal amounts of plaque in their brains, which makes the plaque overload theory one of the most viable. In addition, the study found that copper actually can stimulate the production of beta amyloid, causing even more plaque to form. And, they found that copper triggered inflammation in brain tissue.2
Simply eliminating sources of copper from the diet won't help. First of all, the body needs trace amounts of copper in order to function. In fact, too little copper in the system can cause a host of problems ranging from fatigue, diarrhea, and anorexia to more serious conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, nerve impairment and orthopedic damage.3 Like Goldilocks with the Three Bears, you need to get the mix that's just right. Plus, copper is found in so many foods that eliminating it would be difficult, if not impossible--think whole grains, dark leafy greens, beans, shellfish, potatoes, nuts, dairy products, yeast, and organ meats.
But for most of us, it isn't dietary copper that creates excess. Rather, the culprit is probably tap water, since 95 percent of plumbing systems in the US rely on copper pipes.4 Over time, the copper wears out and begins to leach into the water supply, causing problems--if in fact the study is right and copper does trigger cognitive decline. This applies not only if you drink unfiltered water, but also, if you shower with it. Anyway, the scientists say you don't need an overload to encounter copper's harmful effects:
"These are very low levels of copper [causing the dementia], equivalent to what people would consume in a normal diet," said study author Dr. Rashid Deane of University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
Before you start counting the brain cells you've lost or making plans to replace your copper pipes with PEX (which brings another set of problems), consider that other studies have found that copper actually protects the brain against Alzheimer's. That's right--studies have found just the opposite. How can that be?
According to Christopher Exley, who conducted conflicting research earlier this year at Keele University in Staffordshire, Great Britain, the University of Rochester research can't be trusted because it relies on limited mouse studies and didn't use large enough samples to get reliable results.5 Dr. Exley's study says he found that …" we would be thinking, based on everything that we know -- and our research has been done with human brains and brain tissues -- that if anything, copper would be protective against Alzheimer's."
Dr. Exley's study found that copper actually interferes with the process by which beta amyloid forms into plaque. Again, his study used only human brain tissue, unlike the mouse study that found copper to be harmful.
"You do need a significant amount of tissue to produce results that you have a high level of confidence in," he said." A mouse capillary -- these are very, very, very small things. He also pointed out that according to the new study, virtually everyone--not just Alzheimer's victims--would have brain decay as a result of copper intake, since the amount of copper implicated in the mouse study is so low that anyone with a normal diet would be in trouble.
An independent scientist, Dr. George Brewer of the University of Michigan Medical School, points out yet another objection. He notes that the scientists in the University of Rochester study didn't differentiate between copper delivered via normal food intake, and copper that comes from decaying pipes--organically bound copper VS inorganic unbound copper, if you will.
"We have always had copper in food, so it couldn't possibly be the cause of this new Alzheimer's Disease epidemic," he said. "If they had added this trace amount of copper to food, rather than putting it in drinking water, it would have had no effect."
As mentioned earlier--copper isn't the only metal implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease this week. Research just conducted by Dr. George Bartzokis and colleagues at UCLA found that an accumulation of iron in the brain may lead to oxidative damage, toxicity, and ultimately tissue damage with aging, particularly in the hippocampus, a part of the brain affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's.6 As with copper, we need a certain amount of iron to ensure good brain health, as well as to avoid anemia. Iron helps to repair damage to myelin tissue in the brain in younger individuals, but it seems that as we age, the iron accumulates to dangerous levels, and may lead to damaging effects. Dr. Bartzokis came to his conclusions after performing MRIs on 31 individuals with Alzheimer's and 68 patients without. He found increased levels of iron in the hippocampus regions of the Alzheimer's patients.
More research needs to be done to reach definitive conclusions about how much copper and iron we need before we begin to suffer brain damage, since we do require both iron and copper for good health, but there are some cautionary lessons to be taken from the research to date. First, the studies give evidence that doing a heavy metal detox on a regular basis is a good idea--just so you can start with a clean slate a couple of times a year. Second, it makes good sense to buy a whole-house water filter to ensure that you aren't getting an overload of unwanted heavy metals (and other toxins) when you drink and bathe. And if your hair has started turning silver, it makes sense to limit iron intake--certainly avoiding megadose iron supplements unless you're anemic.
- 1. Jaslow, Ryan. "Copper in foods linked to Alzheimer's Disease risk." 20 August 2013. CBS News. 22 August 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-204_162-57599344/copper-in-foods-linked-to-alzheimers-disease-risk/
- 2. Healy, Melissa. "Copper may play key role in Alzheimer's disease" 19 August 2013. Los Angeles Times. 23 August 2013. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-copper-alzheimers-disease-20130819,0,5977613.story
- 3. "Copper Deficiency." Diagnose Me. http://www.diagnose-me.com/symptoms-of/copper-deficiency.html
- 4. "Benefits of Copper Plumbing." Copper Development Association, Inc. 22 August 2013. http://www.copper.org/applications/plumbing/restools/bnfts_cu_plmbng.html
- 5. "Copper link to Alzheimer's? New research fuels debate." 20 August 2013. Fox News. 23 August 2013. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/08/20/copper-link-to-alzheimers-new-research-fuels-debate/
- 6. Kaiser, Chris. "Iron and Age: A Combo for Alzheimer's?"22 August 2013. MedPage Today. 23 August 2013. http://www.medpagetoday.com/TheGuptaGuide/Neurology/41141