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Aging Well
Vitamins + Supplements

Excess Iron Promotes Aging

It’s been known for decades that some metals, including iron, accumulate in human tissues during aging and that toxic levels of iron have been linked to neurologic diseases, such as Parkinson’s. Common belief has held that iron accumulation happens as a result of the aging process. But research in the nematode C. elegans in the Lithgow lab at the Buck Institute for Research on aging in Novato, California has shown that iron accumulation itself may also be a significant contributor to the aging process, causing dysfunction and malfolding of proteins already implicated in the aging process. The team urged people, especiallly postmenopausal women, to talk to their physicians about whether or not iron supplementation is advisable. The research was published online in January 2015 in Aging.

A release from the institute explains that the researchers found that levels of calcium, copper, iron and manganese increased as the worms aged, a process similar to what happens in humans and other mammals. But iron accumulated much more than the other metals, said Buck faculty member Gordon Lithgow, PhD, senior scientist on the project. “We were drawn to iron because there is all this literature that links excess iron to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Lithgow said.

The team manipulated the nematode’s diet. “We fed iron to four day-old worms, and within a couple of days they looked like 15 day-old worms,” said Lithgow. “Excess iron accelerated the aging process.” Lithgow says excess iron is known to generate oxidative stress and researchers expected to see changes in the worm based on that toxicity. “Instead, what we saw looked much more like normal aging,” said Lithgow. “The iron was causing dysfunction and aggregation in proteins that have already been associated with the aging process. Now we’re wondering if excess iron also drives aging.”

The researchers, led by graduate student Ida Klang, also treated normal nematodes with the FDA-approved metal chelator CaEDTA – a drug that’s used in humans at risk for lead poisoning. The drug slowed age-related accumulation of iron and extended the healthspan and lifespan of the nematodes. Klang also gave the drug to worms genetically bred to develop specific protein aggregations implicated in human disease. The chelator was also protective in those animals.

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