By Matt Sloane
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
Nov. 18, 2014 -- Men under 45 years old who eat lots of trans fats may be hurting their memory, according to a new study released Tuesday.
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Researchers at UC San Francisco followed 1,000 healthy men who ate various amounts of trans fats, and they found that the men in that age range who ate the most did the worst on a word recall test.
"People were presented with a series of cards with words on them, and they had to decide if they were repeats, or newly-presented words," says Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, the lead researcher. "Each additional gram of trans fat consumed per day was associated with .76 fewer words recalled."
That might not sound like a lot, but the highest trans-fat eaters in the study took in about 15 grams per day, and that's a sizeable drop in memory.
"That would be associated with 11 to 12 fewer words recalled," Golomb says, or about a 10% drop.
Golomb and her group of researchers believe the memory loss is due to trans fats' effect on cells, which can reduce blood flow to the most important parts of the brain. Its effect is also linked to a higher rate of heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.
The research was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions meeting this week in Chicago.
"I put things you eat into two categories: Foods and anti-foods," Golomb says. "Foods are the things that support the health and function of cells, and anti-foods adversely affect that. Trans fats fall into that anti-food category."
Previous findings from Golomb's group have included studies that found chocolate boosted word recall, and conversely, that trans fats influenced mood and behavior, making people more aggressive and depressed.
Ralph Sacco, MD, chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says the findings underscore a known link between the heart and the brain.
"These findings are not that surprising, given that we know there are many connections between cardiovascular disease and brain health," Sacco says.
He's also concerned that the effects were seen in men so young.
"We see here that diet early in life, before the middle-age years, can have a major impact on brain function even before we routinely think it is dangerous."
The FDA has proposed virtually banning trans fats from processed foods. Under its proposal, food makers would have to prove that trans fats are safe in order to use them.
Golomb suggests a way to cut back on trans fats, despite their presence in many prepared foods. "People should read food labels and look for the word hydrogenated, or the word margarine or shortening, and avoid these foods as much as possible."
She says trans fats appear to have no nutritional benefit whatsoever. "These are industrially produced fats that do not occur in nature," she adds.
Sacco, a past president of the American Heart Association, echoes that sentiment.
"The American Heart Association has already taken such a strong stance to eliminate trans fats from the diet, mainly to eliminate cardiovascular disease," he says. "Now we see trans fats can be [harmful] for brain health as well."
"As I tell patients," Golomb says in a press release announcing the study findings, "while trans fats increase the shelf life of foods, they reduce the shelf life of people."
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.
SOURCES: Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, UC San Francisco School of Medicine. Ralph Sacco, MD, chairman, Department of Neurology, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, November 15-19, 2014, Chicago.
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