The Goldilocks Trace element principle of Healthy Aging: not too much, not too little but just right!
Until relatively recently, Medicine has largely ignored trace elements and it has especially overlooked their importance in healthy aging. My recent search of the Medical Literature using the term ‘trace elements’, and ‘aging’ revealed that between 1951 and 1960 only 42 scientific papers were published on this subject while in contrast, 2,171 papers were published between 2013 and 2022. Nevertheless, many of the recent 2,171 papers discuss the lack of knowledge on this critical subject rather than contribute to the solution!
My own interest in trace elements and aging started when during my research for my book “Why We Age”, I started trying to make sense of the huge differences in the rates of deaths from specific causes between different 184 countries of the world as shown on the website world life expectancy.com https://worldlifeexpectancy.com. From my analyses I concluded that the relatively high content of Manganese in Maple Syrup might be protecting Canadians from Stroke (Canada has the world’s lowest rate of death from Stroke) and that the extraordinarily high regulation of plumbing, might be protecting Singaporeans from Copper in their water supply and hence from developing Alzheimer’s?
Let me say here that these associations of Manganese and Copper are supported by extensive medical literature and whilst probably correct, are not proven.
Metals in blood of nonagenarians and centenarians living in Sardinia
A study[i] undertaken in 2014 examined the levels of three metals Calcium, Iron and Magnesium and four trace elements Cobalt, Copper, Manganese and Selenium in the blood of 76 people aged about 90 (average 89 and range plus or minus 6.3 years), 64 centenarians (average age 100 plus of minus one year) and 24 people in their sixties. In both groups of older people, the levels of Calcium, Cobalt, Iron, Manganese and Iron had dropped significantly. Iron and Selenium were most affected by aging and the same results were found in both males and females. This implies that these minerals and trace elements are being used up by the aging process. Neither Magnesium nor Copper changed.
Do higher levels of some trace elements assist healthy aging?
A study that used a slightly different approach to the one above, drew attention to the same minerals and trace elements but examined the relationship with age-related diseases. Alis and his cohorts[ii] analyzed the blood levels of Chromium, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Selenium and Zinc in centenarians (men and women) who were free from major age-related diseases) and compared them with a group of younger elderly people. In this study the healthy centenarians had statistically significantly lower levels of Copper but much higher levels of Iron and Selenium than the controls. Their statistical analysis identified that having both lower levels of Copper and higher levels of Selenium were independent variables associated with healthy aging.
It is well known that we have several critical enzymes that are concerned with scavenging and control of cellular damage. These depend on having low, but critical levels of trace elements for their function. The three most important groups of enzymes are the Selenoproteins, the Superoxide Dismutases and the Glutathiones.
My own ‘little’ Selenium story!
(n.b. these are not MY gums!)
I only realized the critical importance of Selenium to healthy aging a couple of years ago. Like many people, I knew it was an essential micronutrient, but I assumed that I would have had sufficient in my normal diet. Nevertheless, I had suffered from inflamed gums from the time I was pregnant with my first child and even though I cleaned and flossed my teeth every day, the inflammation had persisted for over forty years.
Not related to my gums but after reading that many centenarians had higher intakes of Selenium than most people, I decided to find a Selenium-rich food and consume it regularly. I soon found that the richest source of Selenium is Brazil Nuts and so I started and continued to eat up to five Brazil Nuts every day (more could be excessive).
So, here’s the story: I went for a dental check-up a couple of days before starting the Brazil Nut snack and as usual had gum inflammation. The dentist decided that there were a couple of old fillings that needed replacing so I made an appointment for six weeks’ time. When I attended the second appointment, the dentist exclaimed at the improved state of my gums …the inflammation had gone!
Micronutrients, aging and dementia
There are many scientific publications that show that trace elements are disturbed in the brains of people with dementia. At this stage it isn’t clear that excesses of Copper, and some other elements cause dementia but it is clear that metal and chemical exposures are involved in some if not all cases. To avoid unplanned exposures, it is important to monitor air and water quality and filtering all drinking water is an easy way to reduce some of the risk.
Eating enough but not too much of foods that are rich in trace elements is important to healthy aging. Fortunately, you can get most of what you need from dark chocolate and Brazil nuts!
[i] Forte G et al (2014) Metals in plasma of nonagenarians and centenarians living in a key area of longevity. Exp Gerontol 2014.10.016: 197-206
[ii] [ii] Alis R et al (2016) Trace elements levels in centenarian ‘dodgers’ J. Trace Elem Med Biol. 35:103-106