Risks of copper and iron toxicity during aging in humans

Chem Res Toxicol. 2010 Feb 15;23(2):319-26. doi: 10.1021/tx900338d.


Copper and iron are essential but also toxic metals. Their essentiality is known, but their toxicity, except for the genetic overload diseases, Wilson's disease and hemochromatosis, is not so well known. Yet, their toxicities are so general in the population that they are a looming public health problem in diseases of aging and in the aging process itself. Both metals are transition elements, and their resulting redox properties have been used during evolution in the development of oxidative energy generation. But both contribute to the production of excess damaging oxidant radicals. Evolution has kept stores of copper and iron in excess during the reproductive years because they are so vital to life. But the oxidant damage from these excess stores of metals builds up as we age, and natural selection ceases to act after about age 50 since diseases after that do not contribute to reproductive fitness. Diseases of aging such as Alzheimer's disease, other neurodegenerative diseases, arteriosclerosis, diabetes mellitus, and others may all be contributed to by excess copper and iron. A very disturbing study has found that in the general population those in the highest fifth of copper intake, if they are also eating a relatively high fat diet, lose cognition at over three times the normal rate. Inorganic copper in drinking water and in supplements is handled differently than food copper and is therefore more toxic. Trace amounts of copper in drinking water, less than one-tenth of that allowed in human drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency, greatly enhanced an Alzheimer's-like disease in an animal model. In the last part of this review, I will provide advice on how to lower risks from copper and iron toxicity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging*
  • Copper / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Iron / toxicity*
  • Risk Factors


  • Copper
  • Iron