Copper: What a Difference Sex Makes

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, January 31, 1987 | Go to article overview

Copper: What a Difference Sex Makes


Raloff, Janet, Science News


Copper: What a difference sex makes

Over the past decade, nutrition scientistshave found they can induce all the symptoms of coronary heart disease in animals merely by feeding them a low-copper diet (SN: 6/8/85, p.357). Last year, a different research group reported that those coronary effects of copper deficiency were magnified dramatically when an animal was allowed to indulge its sweet tooth on a diet high in fructose, the sugar in fruits and honey (SN: 5/3/86, p.279). Their latest findings now indicate that sex may affect the susceptibility to this effect.

In their study with rats, researchers atthe Agriculture Department's Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville, Md., observed that males began dying from ruptured hearts after five weeks on a low-copper, high-fructose diet. By the eighth week, 40 percent were dead, and the rest were dying of heart disease -- with severely enlarged hearts, anemia and high cholesterol levels. Meanwhile, except for having high serum-cholesterol levels, the females were healthy and disease free.

"I couldn't believe it," says biochemistMeira Fields. "By the eleventh week my rats were either alive or dead -- there was nothing [illness-related] in between." And the only factor differentiating them was their sex.

What this means, she says, is that "ananimal was protected against death just by being female." In her search for reasons, Fields is focusing on the possible role of sex hormones in making males more vulnerable or females less so.

It also prompts speculation, Fieldssays, that a sex-related difference in susceptibility to heart disease may help explain why U.S. women experience less heart disease than men (SN: 11/2/85, p.279). Nutrition researchers have estimated that, at least in the United States, as much as 70 percent of the population may be copper deficient. And fructose is becoming an increasingly larger part of the average diet as processed-food and soft-drink manufacturers increase their reliance on this inexpensive natural sweetener. …

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