By Michelle Longo
New Danish-led research suggests that signs of brain aging can be postponed through high-fat diets. In the long term, this opens the possibility of treatment of children suffering from premature aging and patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The research project is headed by the Center for Healthy Aging, University of Copenhagen and the National Institute of Health.
By high-fat we don’t mean processed or fried fatty foods with little nutrition. We mean high nutrient, energy efficient foods such as nuts, avocados, organic eggs, coconut oil, olive oil, non-pasteurized hard cheese and organic fatty fish (if you can find unpolluted sources).
A recent two-year dietary study published in the journal Diabetologia showed that food with a lot of fat and few carbohydrates has a better effect on blood sugar levels and blood lipids. Despite the increased fat intake with a larger portion of saturated fatty acids, their lipoproteins did not get worse. Quite the contrary — the HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol, content increased on the high fat diet.
Other patients with atherosclerosis have been found to lose weight on a high fat, no-starch Atkins-style followed for 6 weeks, without increasing their blood fat (lipid) levels.
A study, led in Australia by the Monash Obesity and Diabetes Institute (MODI) at Monash University, found a high-fat diet causes brain cells to become insulated from the body preventing vital signals, which tell the body to stop eating and to burn energy, from reaching the brain efficiently.
Throughout our lives, it is important that our cells — to the extent possible — keep our DNA undamaged, and, therefore, the cells have a system that repairs the damage that occurs all the time. Humans age when the repair system ceases to function. In diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the researchers also see damage to the DNA.
A new research project headed by the Center for Healthy Aging, University of Copenhagen and the National Institute of Health has studied mice having a defect in their DNA repair system. In humans, this defect causes the disorder Cockayne syndrome, where patients prematurely age as children and die at an age of 10-12 years. The study shows that placing a mouse model of Cockayne syndrome on a high-fat diet will postpone aging processes such as impaired hearing and weight loss.
Fat Stops Premature Aging
“The study is good news for children with Cockayne syndrome, because we do not currently have an effective treatment. Our study suggests that a high-fat diet can postpone aging processes. A diet high in fat also seems to postpone the aging of the brain. The findings therefore potentially imply that patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in the long term may benefit from the new knowledge,” says Professor Vilhelm Bohr from the Center for Healthy Aging, University of Copenhagen and the National Institute of Health, who has headed the study.
Our brain has a constant need for fuel in the form of either sugar or so-called ketones. Ketones are the brain’s fuel reserve, and, in particular, play an important role in periods of low blood sugar levels, e.g. if you are fasting. This is because the body breaks down fat if it needs sugar, and during this process it produces ketones. The researchers see a particular positive effect when the mice are given the so-called medium chain fatty acids — e.g. from coconut oil.
One of the problems is that there is consistent inverse association in the percentage of energy coming from fats and sugars. Research published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition shows why people find it hard to follow government guidelines to cut their fat and sugar intake at the same time — a phenomenon known as the sugar-fat seesaw. This can progressively accelerate aging.
As people begin to incorporate more fat into their diet, they will live longer. Scientists are discovering that what you eat, how frequently, and how much may have an effect on quality and years of life. Of particular interest has been fat and calorie restriction, a diet that is lower by a specific percent of calories and fat than the normal diet but includes all needed nutrients. Research in some animals has shown calorie and fat restriction of up to 40 percent fewer calories but higher amounts of fat than normal, have an impressive positive effect on disease, markers of aging, and, perhaps, life span.
While research into these types of approaches continues, it is important to remember there is already plenty of research supporting the value of a healthy, balanced diet with generous amounts of healthy fats to help delay or prevent age-related health problems.
Natasha Longo has a master’s degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.