Does Iron Cause Alzheimer's?

Submitted on November 13, 2013
A new study in the cause for Alzheimer's helps understand the disease better.
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Old age isn’t always easy for everyone! It brings its fair share of health problems like osteoporosis, arthritis and cardiovascular diseases to name a few. Perhaps one of the most dreaded health issues associated with aging is Alzheimer’s disease. For years now, people have been trying to find ways to reduce their chances of suffering from this progressive and degenerative disorder when they get older. The risks of this disease increase significantly after the age of 65; data shows that almost 50% of the people aged 85 and older suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Though the exact causes are still not clear, according to most researchers, this disorder occurs mainly because of one of the two proteins, Tau and Beta-Amyloid. Scientists claim that as we get older, these proteins can disrupt the signaling between our neurons, or perhaps even kill them. However, a recent study conducted by UCLA states that the accumulation of Iron in the brain could possibly be linked to Alzheimer’s.

Dr. George Bartzokis, Professor of Psychiatry at Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior at UCLA, as well as the senior author of the project, along with his colleagues, studied two areas of the brain, in Alzheimer’s patients. The two areas compared, included:

  • The Hippocampus: The area that generally gets damaged in the early stages of the disease
  • The Thalamus: The part that doesn’t usually get affected until the later stages

With the help of state-of-the-art brain-imaging techniques like MRI, the researchers observed that the level of iron is elevated in hippocampus, which is further associated with damaged tissue, in that area. In the thalamus though, increased iron levels weren’t found. When the test results were compared to a separate set of brain scans, it was seen that high iron levels were mainly linked to damaged brain tissue in Alzheimer’s patients, not in older healthy people.

According to Dr. Bartzokis, there is a fatty tissue known as Myelin, which coats the cerebral nerve fibers. It is produced by certain cells, known as oligodendrocytes. Along, with Myelin, these cells contain the highest amount of iron as compared to any other cell in the brain. The destruction of the tissue causes a breakdown of communication between the neurons. Thus leads to the buildup of plaques, which further destroy the myelin. In conclusion, he says that while iron is important for good cell function in the body, an excess of it could lead to oxidative in the brain.

This study is not conducive enough to prove that iron is a cause of Alzheimer’s. Researchers do however indicate that iron may contribute to the cause of this disease.

There are various other factors that have also been associated with increased risks of Alzheimer’s, and these include:

  • Health problems like high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Inadequate social engagement
  • Lack of exercise
  • Low intake of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Poorly controlled diabetes
  • Severe or repeated head trauma
  • Smoking

Looking at the bright side, you can slow down the iron accumulation rate in the brain, or perhaps even prevent it, with the help of a few lifestyle and dietary changes. Start off by reducing your intake of red meat. If you are not suffering from any iron deficiency, you had best stay away from multivitamins that contain iron too.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is also an association between certain long-term activities and reduced Alzheimer’s disease risks. Some of these factors include:

  • Frequent social interaction
  • Jobs that are stimulating
  • Leisure activities that stimulate the brain, like reading, solving puzzles and playing games
  • Higher levels of education

Keeping active socially, mentally and physically can help reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s; however, it does not guarantee prevention against the disease. It is also important that you check with your doctor before making any major lifestyle or dietary changes.


  2. Bartzokis G and Tishler TA. MRI evaluation of basal ganglia ferritin iron and neurotoxicity in Alzheimer's and Huntington's disease, Cell. Molec. Biol. 2000; 46 821- 834