According to recently reported research, a diet that is high in both copper and saturated fats may be a significant factor in the decline of cognitive ability in people aged 65 and older. More precisely the research implicated a class of fats known as trans-fats as the substance that, when combined with a high dietary copper intake, seem to pose the greatest health risk.
The study, conducted by the Tufts University School of Medicine in Chicago, is the first to demonstrate a possible dietary factor in the rate of decline of cognitive function in the elderly.
According to the results of the study, which appears in the August 2006 issue of the prestigious medical journal Archives of Neurology, people whose diets contained high amounts of either saturated fats or copper alone demonstrated no accelerated rate in decline of mental function. However, those whose diets were high in both saturated fats and copper (defined as a dietary intake of more than 1.6 mg/day including the copper content of vitamin supplements) demonstrated a decline in cognitive ability at a rate that was 143% higher than those in their age-adjusted peer group.
“We didn’t find copper was harmful at all in people who did not have this high-fat diet. But the combination of the two had a significant detrimental effect,” said principal investigator Martha Clare Morris, ScD, in an interview conducted by online physician continuing education provider Medscape.com.
The study was conducted among participants in the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP), an ongoing project that follows the overall health of its 9,000 volunteers. The 3,178 participants in the study first completed a dietary questionnaire to determine their consumption of various substances and then completed a series of cognitive ability tests. The participants were then re-evaluated at 3 and 6 year intervals after joining the study.
The results of the study demonstrated the expected age-related decline in mental function but also revealed that a diet high in both saturated fats and copper was associated with a more rapid decline in cognitive ability. The study also evaluated the possible roles of a higher dietary intake of both iron and zinc as contributing to mental function decline but found no evidence that these elements, either alone or in combination with high saturated fat intake, were associated with an accelerated decline in cognitive ability.
(The Index Medicus citation for Dr. Morris’ report is Arch Neurol. 2006; 63:1085-1088. A brief summary of the article can be read at this link).
Fats (more accurately known, in technical terms, as fatty acids) are defined as chemical substances that are composed of carbon atoms that link with each other and with other elements or compounds to form molecular chains of varying lengths. The length of these chains and their 3-dimensional structure is determined by the number of hydrogen atoms present within these chains.
A relatively high number of hydrogen atoms create the class of fats known as saturated fats. The longer lengths of these molecules allow them to form very stable crystal-like structures that remain solid at room temperature. These are known as saturated fats. Substances such as Crisco™ are saturated fats. On the other hand, relatively fewer available hydrogen atoms create shorter chains that do not readily link with one another at room temperature and thus remain in a liquid at room temperature are called unsaturated fats. Liquids such as olive and peanut oil are composed of a higher per centage of unsaturated fats.
Trans-fats, the substances implicated in Dr. Morris’ research, are technically defined as unsaturated fats whose molecular structure has been altered by a process called partial hydrogenation.
Fortunately, as of January 1, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that both total fat and trans-fat content be provided in the “Nutritional Facts” section of food product labels. Many food product manufacturers provide a more detailed breakdown of fat content than required by the FDA. When confronted with a label that provides only the required data we can determine that, based on the information presented in this article, we know that:
(1) Total Fat = Saturated Fat + Unsaturated Fat + Trans-fat
With a little simple arithmetic, we can determine that:
(2) Trans-fat = Total Fat – (Saturated Fat + Unsaturated Fat)
Consumers living in areas outside the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (in other words, outside the ) can easily use statement (2) to approximate the trans-fat content of food products when shopping.
For More Information
For more specific information on subjects mentioned in this article, the author recommends the following web sites.
Those wishing to read a more detailed discussion regarding trans-fats should take a look at
‘s Trans Fat: What is it? Where does it come from? And why haven’t we heard anything about it? The article may be a bit dated but it still contains
The United States Food and Drug Administration’s pages concerning the required inclusion of trans-fat content on food labels can be found at this link and their recommended daily allowances (RDA) regarding specific food components is available on this web page.
Trans-fats have also been implicated as a risk factor in coronary artery disease (narrowing and/or blockages involving the arteries that supply nutrients to the heart muscle). The Harvard School of Public Health has been a leader in researching this possible link and their study, Trans-fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease , contains a detailed report on this topic.
The information presented in this article and its included links is of an informational nature only and is not intended as a recommendation of any changes in the reader’s health care program. Before making any changes in diet, medications, or other treatments the reader is strongly advised to consult with their health care provider.