Can Humans Live Longer?: What we can learn about anti-aging from mynah birds, fruit flies and leeches

The number of Americans age 65 or older has increased ten told in the last century and the elderly are living longer. In 1900 there were about 3.1 million people over the age of 65 in the USA. Today there are more than 35 million retirees and this figure is expected to leap to 70 million by the year 2030. In 1900, 65-year olds could expect to live another 12 years. Today they can expect to live an additional 18 years.1 There are even an estimated 35,000 centenarians living in the USA today. But these achievements in longevity have only whetted the appetite of humans to reach for even greater prolongation of human life. Yet, while Americans are living longer, the maximum human life span hasn’t budged.

Throughout history females have outlived males. The difference is about five to eight years on average. Some females living in the same environment and eating the same diet as their spouse will outlive their husbands by a couple of decades. Those who pursue anti-aging technologies often overlook this important point.

Estrogen effect is small

The idea that estrogen is reponsible for the increased longevity of females has served as a distraction. The majority of the life extension attributed to estrogen, about 2.3 years, occurs only among women with coronary artery disease who take hormones. Estrogen replacement therapy only adds about 0.3 years of additional life if for healthy women if begun at age 50 years.2 Furthermore, the decreased mortality rates with the use of replacement hormones appears to wear off over time.3

Women control iron, and live longer

Women live longer because they are better designed to withstand the rigors of life. Women, being the baby carriers of the species, must be protected from disease for human life to skirt extinction. Women better control iron in their bodies and thus outlast men. During the growing years both males and females require iron to produce hemoglobin for the production of red blood cells. Because the human body is growing rapidly during youth and more blood volume is needed, there is little danger of iron overload. But once full growth has been achieved, around age 18, the demand for iron is relaxed and about one excess milligram of iron per day of life accumulates thereafter in the body. But at this point females avoid iron overload by virtue of their monthly menstrual cycle. About 80 percent of the iron stores in the body are in the red blood cells and females will lose about 30-60 milligrams of iron with the monthly cycle. On the other hand, males have no direct route for the disposal of excess iron and by the age of 40 have as much iron as a 70-year old female, about 5000-7000 milligrams of excess stored iron. A 40-year old male will have twice the iron load as a female and will experience twice the rate of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and infections. Bacteria, viruses and fungi all utilize iron as a primary growth factor, so lower iron levels in females protect them from infection.4

Females who have undergone early hysterectomy or who have entered menopause lose their control of iron and begin to experience the same rate of disease as males. Females at age 45 have an advantage of about 5-8 more remaining years of life than males. But at age 80 this advantage shrinks to just two years. This is because now both sexes have lost any direct outlet for iron.

Blood loss is a method of controlling stored iron levels. For example, full-grown males, or females who no longer control iron via monthly blood loss, but who regularly donate blood are healthier. Even blood letting, practiced long ago, is returning to conventional medicine to treat Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer and diabetes. Blood-sucking leaches could theoretically protect against age-related iron overload and thus promote longevity, though blood letting is currently the preferred method.5

Calorie or iron restriction?

Iron is the single most important factor in the control of aging. Yet anti-aging researchers recognize calorie restriction as the only proven method of slowing down the aging process. However, the calorie restriction model of anti-aging has only been proven in rodents to date. It’s going to take another 10-15 years to determine if this also occurs in larger animals such as monkeys.6 According to data at hand, it would take a 30% reduction in calories over a human lifespan to significantly slow aging in humans. Calorie restriction lowers body temperature, reduces cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure, elevates HDL cholesterol and reduces arterty stiffness.7 But there is more to the story.

Studies of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) may help to understand the supremacy of iron control in the aging process. Fruit flies are often used in aging studies because of their short life span, maybe 50-70 days. Insects have inborn mechanisms to control iron similar to humans. Insects control iron by iron-binding proteins (ferritin, transferrin).8 Excessive iron has been found to be the initiator of aging in fruit flies.9

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, measured the aging rate of mice at 6, 12 and 24 months by determining the level of oxidation (rusting of tissues) in various organs. The more food these animals consumed the more iron that accumulated in their tissues and the greater the oxidation (aging). As early as 1985 researchers proposed that the rate of age-related iron accumulation correlates with the life span of some species. The accumulation of iron in these rodents did not occur till growth had been completed. After that time iron levels increased in the liver by 140 percent and the kidney by 44 percent. The liver and brain experience the greatest iron buildup with advancing age. An iron-restricted diet minimized the oxidation levels in the liver, kidney and brain with advancing age.10

The lifespan of the fruit fly has been found to be proportional to the iron content in the diet. The life span of humans has been correlated with mice and the fruit fly. Consumption of tea extracts, which bind iron and inhibit its absorption, has been found to inhibit the age-related accumulation of iron and prolong life in the fruit fly by as much as 21 percent.11 So calorie restriction may not be the only way to prolong human life.

Progressive iron overload is universal

Another problem in understanding the iron overload model of aging is that it is often characterized as being a genetically-acquired disease rather than a universal aging factor. Iron overload is called a disease, hemochromatosis, and it is mistakenly believed to only affect about 1 million Americans. It is usually diagnosed between the ages of 40-60 years. The growing years and menstruation usually mask the problem till middle age. Iron overload is not just a genetic disease. Furthermore, since fertile females and growing children are often deficient in iron (anemia) due to the high demands for this mineral, nutritionists have often overemphasized the problem of anemia without warning full-grown males and females who no longer have monthly cycles of the dangers of iron overload.12

For example, adult males should not eat a bowl of Total cereal (General Mills) for breakfast which provides a full 18 milligrams of iron per serving, 100% of the daily requirement, per bowl. Do you know any males who eat just one bowl of cereal? Many consume a couple of bowls for breakfast and may through meat eating get three to four times more iron than they need on a daily basis. There is no warning on the label for full-grown males to steer clear of Total cereal.

It’s not that iron should be totally avoided. The body needs some replacement iron to make red blood cells. Dietary iron is OK, even from meat. Only 5 percent of iron in plant foods is available, vs. 30 to 50 percent of iron from meat.13 Meat is not the culprit, it is the lack of molecules in the diet that control iron that makes iron a rusting agent (see below). A little meat is needed to keep us from becoming anemic, the flip side of iron nutrition. Supplememental iron should be avoided for full-grown males and females who no longer have monthly cycles. Niether do iron tablets in stores carry a warning label for full-grown males and postmenopausal females. Ironically, females who have higher iron needs in their fertile years may crave iron-rich foods, such as meats. If the women do the cooking in the family household and they prepare foods to meet their own nutritional needs, loading upon on iron-rich meat, they may hasten the demise of their male spouse.

Humans consume about 30 milligrams of iron per day from the diet, but only a small portion is absorbed. But the addtion of alcohol to a meal greatly increases the absorption of iron. Iron overload disease is strongly associated with alcohol consumption. Compared to alcoholic spirits, red wine is low in iron and contains the iron-binding pigments from grapes, which may explain some of the health benefits attributed to wine.14

Mynah birds and longevity

Any animal or human can develop iron overload disease. The study of the mynah bird reveals some secrets of iron and longevity. Iron overload in mynah birds has been likened to iron overload disease (hemochromatosis) in humans.15 While some mynah birds live in the wild as long as 20 years or more, mynah birds in captivity often die early of iron storage disease, usually by the age of 10. This problem is attributed to iron-rich bird feed. []

Mynah birds in the wild are fruit eaters and the favorite fruit is figs. Figs are relatively high in iron. Yet the wild mynah birds don’t develop iron overload. Figs are high in iron-binding pigments (tannins) that bind iron and render it harmless. Starlings are birds that are similar to mynah birds in that they are fruit eaters. When starlings are fed a diet high in iron along with natural iron binders (tannins), such as found in figs, tea, and grapes (wine), the starling don’t accumulate iron in their liver and none of the birds develop iron overload.16 Tannins are potent binders (chelators) of iron.17

Iron-binding plant pigments also have been shown to extend the lifespan of the fruit fly. In one study the survival of fruit flies exposed to an herbicide (paraquat) was about 56 percent and when iron was added the survival rate dropped even lower. But when the herbicide was fed to the fruit flies with an iron binder commonly found in green tea (catechin), the survival rate jumped to 78-87 percent.18

Most health practices control iron

Most of the health-promoting practices of modern life unknowingly control iron. For example, taking an aspirin a day to prevent heart attacks and strokes causes blood loss via the digestive tract on the order of about a tablespoon per day. This results in iron loss.19 Aspirin also appears to increase the production of ferritin, an iron-binding protein produced in the liver that prevents iron from inducing oxidation.20 By exercising, a person loses about 1 milligram of iron through sweat.21

Fasting and vegetarian diets, both of which promote longevity in animals and humans, limit iron consumption because plant foods provide non-heme iron which is poorly absorbed.

According to one study, when you sit down to eat a meal consisting of a hamburger, string beans and mashed potatoes, the addition of coffee, which contains iron-binding pigments, will reduce iron absorption by 35 percent. Green tea will reduce iron absorption even further, by 62 percent.22

Vitamin C increases iron absorption

Orange juice increases iron absorption by 85 percent by virtue of its vitamin C content. 22

While vitamin C increases iron absorption,23 there is no evidence that vitamin C leads to iron overload. Thus vitamin C should not be avoided by meat-eaters for this reason, since studies show high-dose vitamin C supplements are associated with a decreased risk for heart disease, cancer, cataracts and other disorders.24 A vegetarian diet does not generally cause iron-deficiency anemia because there is more vitamin C in plant-food diets, which enhances iron absorption.25

Bind that iron

Grapes have a relatively large amount of iron, but you don’t see any rusty grapes. The reason is that grapes, like the figs that mynah birds eat, have those iron-binding pigments that tightly bind to iron. In healthy individuals there is little if any unbound iron circulating in the blood. In all states of disease, however, unbound iron (also called free iron) is released at sites of inflammation, tumors and infection, and can spark uncontrolled oxidation (rusting) and tissue destruction.26

Fortunately, there are numerous automatic mechanisms in the body that help to control iron. For instance, melanin is an iron-binding pigment in the skin. The liver makes binding proteins called ferritin, transferrin and lactoferrin, to bind to iron as it enters the circulatory system.27

The diet also provides some potent iron binders. Iron-binding pigments found in berries, coffee, green tea, pine bark, onions and the rind of citrus fruits, and phytic acid (a component of whole grains and seeds such as sesame and rice bran) bind to iron and other minerals in the gastric tract and help to limit iron availability.

If bioflavonoids and phytic acid haven’t bound to minerals in the digestive tract they will get into the bloodstream, where they can bind to free iron, acting as blood-cleansing iron chelators. Therefore, maximum iron chelation in the blood circulation is achieved when these iron binders are consumed apart from meals.

How to remove (chelate) excess iron (rust) from the body

The question is, what can adult males, or females who have not menstruated for years, do to remove the excess iron from their body stores? Chelation therapy is what is needed, the removal of the excess iron. Alternative medical specialists offer to perform chelation therapy via the intravenous administration of EDTA, a mineral chelator. Intravenous chelation therapy requires many treatments, maybe 30 or 40, and is somewhat costly ($3000-4000). Conventional medicine also has a mineral-chelating drug, desferrioxamine, but it is sparingly used because of side effects.

Nature’s most potent rust remover is phytic acid, commonly found in whole grains, seeds and nuts. Phytic acid – also called inositol hexaphosphate, or IP6 – is comprised of six phosphorus molecules and one molecule of inositol. IP6 is provided as a food supplement extracted from rice bran (Tsuno Foods & Rice Co., Wakayama, Japan). Bran cereal has some IP6 in it, but it is already bound to minerals. The IP6 extract imported from Japan is 70 percent unbound, ready to selectively chelate (attach to) minerals as it enters the human circulatory system.28 IP6 doesn’t remove minerals from bones or other needed minerals, it just removes the free unbound iron, copper, calcium, and heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium. IP6 has little or no affinity for sodium, potassium, and magnesium, the important electrolyte minerals required for proper heart rhythm. Taken in between meals with water, IP6 can rid the body of excessive iron and other minerals in a short period of time, 30-90 days. Once bound to IP6 the excess minerals are excreted via the urinary flow. IP6 rice bran extract is an unheralded but potent anti-aging therapy.

The iron stores in your body will control the severity of disease and longevity. Learning how to control iron is a major, if not the primary, anti-aging factor in living organisms. The pursuit of long life requires the control of iron.


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February 15, 2002