Is iron in steak to blame for risk of Alzheimer’s? Study suggests excess red meat bad for the brain

Red meat has been linked to risk of cancer, diabetes, early death and a string of other health concerns. Now, the latest research out of the United States suggests iron in red meat is linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file

TORONTO – Yet another study is warning consumers about eating too much red meat.

Red meat has been linked to risk of cancer, diabetes, early death and a string of other health concerns. Now, the latest research out of the United States suggests iron in red meat is linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.

It’s because iron – which is abundant in red meat – builds up in the part of the brain that’s damaged in the early stages of dementia, University of California researchers say.

But the researchers note: their findings do not prove that iron is causing Alzheimer’s, it “may indeed contribute to the cause.”

Read more: Red meat eaten daily increases risk of early death, study says

So far, the medical community suggests the disease is caused by a protein called Tau. As we age, these proteins accumulate in the brain like a plaque and disrupt neuron signaling or they kill the neurons altogether, research says.

Story continues below advertisement

This time, the UCLA scientists say iron build up may be a contributing factor.

Lead researcher Dr. George Bartokis, a psychiatry professor, studied the brains of Alzheimer’s patients using imaging technology, zeroing in on two areas – the hippocampus and the thalamus.

Their snapshots of the brain showed that iron levels were increased in the hippocampus – one of the first victims of dementia – and was linked to tissue damage in this vulnerable part of the brain. Meanwhile, there was no iron in the thalamus.

While researchers typically point to Tau buildup as the culprit for Alzheimer’s, Bartzokis suggests the breakdown of the brain begins further “upstream.”

It’s the destruction of myelin, a fatty tissue that coats nerve fibres in the brain, that is causing this collapse of the brain, he posits.

Read more: Two components of red meat increase risk of bladder cancer, American researchers say

Myelin is produced by cells that have the highest levels of iron of any cells in the brain. Our cell function relies on iron to thrive, but too much of it can lead to damage, Bartzokis said.

“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,” Bartzokis said.

Story continues below advertisement

“So the results suggest that iron accumulation may indeed contribute to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.”

But don’t scrap your weekend barbecue plans yet. The study’s stirred up debate amongst doctors and nutritionists, who say more research needs to be done.

Read more: Brain exercise trumps medication in maintaining seniors’ cognitive health: study

Canada Beef, the organization that represents the Canadian beef industry, says the study was on a small number of subjects and shouldn’t be used to determine cause and effect.

“The study did not look to see whether those with Alzheimer’s actually consumed more iron or red meat,” Karine Barlow, the organization’s registered dietician, told Global News.

Barlow said red meat is packed with vitamin B12 and zinc, and the protein plays a role in muscle maintenance, weight management and disease prevention.

Read more: As dementia sets in, artists still recall drawing from memory

Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s Research UK also noted that the study leaves questions.

“This study suggests that during Alzheimer’s, iron could accumulate in an area of the brain that is critical to memory, but it is not clear whether this build-up might be a cause or consequence of the disease,” Dr. Marie Janson said.

Story continues below advertisement

“Research is underway to look at whether shifts in the balance of iron in the brain as we age could interfere with biological processes involved in Alzheimer’s.  However, iron is an essential part of our diet with many important roles in the body.  Too little iron can be harmful to your health and so it is important to make sure you are getting enough through your diet,” she said in a statement.

The study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.