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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 7, 2006

Fats, copper combo linked to age-related cognitive decline

By Amy Tousman

Q. What role do fats and copper play in age-related memory problems?

A. Problems with memory, reasoning and learning abilities, known as cognitive decline, are common as we age. A high saturated fat and copper-rich diet may increase the risk of cognitive decline in older adults. This is the news from a study published in the August issue of the Archives of Neurology.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago studied 3,718 people 65 and older. Each participant's cognitive abilities were tested at the start of the study and again three years and six years later. Participants also provided information about their eating habits and consumption of vitamin/mineral supplements containing copper.

Among the 604 individuals with the highest intake of saturated and trans fats, cognitive function deteriorated more rapidly with higher copper consumption. The impact on cognitive function was equivalent to adding 19 years to these participants' age.

It didn't matter whether the copper came from vitamin supplements or food. Copper wasn't harmful in people who didn't eat a high saturated fat diet. It was the combination of the two that hastened cognitive decline.

Foods with high copper levels include liver, shellfish, shiitake mushrooms, sunflower seeds and chocolate. Rather than avoiding copper, it would be prudent to decrease saturated and trans fats. Further research is needed confirming these results in other populations.

Previous research showed increased risk for Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline in individuals with high saturated and trans fat intakes. Health experts already advise decreasing these types of fats to improve heart health. It's not surprising that foods that affect blood vessels of the heart also affect blood vessels of the brain.

Copper's role was uncovered by accident. In a study of rabbits with high cholesterol, those who drank water with trace amounts of copper had a faster decline in memory than rabbits that drank water without copper.

Saturated and trans fats are found in meats, chicken skin, pastries, and many deep fried restaurant foods.

You may also be able to slow age-related cognitive decline by controlling blood pressure, exercising, increasing fish intake and eating foods rich in B vitamins folic acid, B6 and B12. Intellectual and artistic pursuits such as reading, doing crossword puzzles or playing an instrument are also beneficial.

Amy Tousman is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. Hawai'i experts in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine and diet take turns writing the Prescriptions column. Send your questions to: Prescriptions, Island Life, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; fax 535-8170; or to islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com. This column is not intended to provide medical advice.