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Eating Red Meat May Up Alzheimer's Risk

Update Date: Aug 22, 2013 03:07 PM EDT
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A family fell ill after eating LAS-laced meat bought from Walmart. (Photo : Pixabay)

Red meat has been linked to a cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and early death. Now, new research reveals that Alzheimer's disease may also have a place in the long list of ailments associated with eating red meat.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that a build-up of iron can increase the likelihood of Alzheimer's disease. While iron, which is abundant in red meat, is essential for cell function, too much of it can promote oxidant damage in the brain.  Because the brain is especially vulnerable to oxidant damage, eating red meat can increase a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

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While most research on the neurodegenerative disorder has focused on the buildup of tau or beta-amyloid, researcher Dr. George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, believes that the breakdown begins much further "upstream."

The destruction of myelin, the fatty tissue that coats nerve fibers in the brain, disrupts communication between neurons and promotes the buildup of the plaques. These amyloid plaques then destroy more and more myelin, which disrupts brain signaling and leads to cell death and classic clinical signs of Alzheimer's. Because myelin and the cells that produce it, called oligodendrocytes, have the highest levels of iron compared to any other cell in the brain, researchers believe that elevated tissue iron may trigger the tissue breakdown associated with Alzheimer's disease.

To test their theory, researchers examined two brain regions: the hippocampus, which is damaged early in the disease, and the thalamus, which is not affected until the late stages of Alzheimer's.

Using MRI scans, Bartzokis and his team found that iron is increased and associated with tissue damage in the hippocampus.  However, researchers did not find increased iron levels in the thalamus. The study also found significantly higher iron levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease.

"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," Bartzokis said in a statement.

In light of the latest findings, researchers say that dietary changes and surgical interventions may help lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

"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," Bartzokis said.

The findings are published in the August edition of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

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