Thursday, 18 December 2014

Trans Fats and Memory Loss - A Disturbing Link

A professor from the University of California has completed a study suggesting that trans fats hinder our memory, at least in men. Trans fats are added to processed foods to reduce spoilage and increase their shelf life. On food labels, they are often listed as partially hydrogenated oils or fats. The latest discovery adds further support to the idea that we should eliminate trans fats from our diet.

Even before the new discovery it was known that trans fats are unhealthy. They not only increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in our body but also lower the amount of HDL cholesterol. A high level of LDL cholesterol can lead to the blockage of blood vessels by plaque and can also increase the risk of heart disease and strokes. This type of cholesterol is often known as the "bad" cholesterol. On the other hand, HDL cholesterol - the good cholesterol - can remove plaque from blood vessels.

Plaque in an artery
Illustration by BruceBlausen, CC BY-SA 3.0 License
Small amounts of natural trans fats exist in meat and dairy foods. These don't appear to cause health problems. Artificial trans fats are potentially dangerous, however. They're made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. This process changes the oil from a solid to a liquid. Artificial trans fats are most likely to be found in commercially baked goods, snack foods such as potato and corn chips, deep fried food and non-dairy coffee creamers.

Processed food manufacturers are reducing the amount of trans fats in their products, which sounds like good news. According to US law, however, companies can claim that their product is trans fats free if the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. If someone eats a lot of processed foods, a small amount of trans fat in each serving could add up to a significant intake.

Potato chips often contain trans fats.
Photo by avantrend at
The University of California research project involved about 1000 men. The study examined the memories of men aged forty-five or younger. The test subjects were represented with cards that had words written on them. The men had to say whether the words were new or whether they'd seen them before in the test.

The researchers found that each gram of trans fat ingested in a day (as reported by the men) was linked to 0.76 fewer words remembered. The men who ate the most trans fat remembered 11 fewer words than those who ate no trans fats. According to Dr. Beatrice Golomb, who carried out the study, "Trans fats increase the shelf life of the food but reduce the shelf life of the person."

Surveys are helpful in medicine, although they aren't as useful as clinical tests in showing relationships. The results of the survey don't prove that the ingestion of trans fats is the cause of decreased memory. In addition, the results were announced at a medical conference instead of being published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Still, they are interesting and thought provoking. Combined with our previous knowledge that trans fats are bad for blood vessels, it definitely seems like a good idea to avoid them.