We know of no treatment that will delay, prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, or that affects the underlying disease process. It’s a tragic, frustrating disease that takes away the very things that make us who we are: memory and personality. It is affecting more and more people as the numbers of elderly increase. Available prescription medications are only modestly effective in slowing functional decline and delaying the need for institutionalization.
By Dr. Mercola
Memory loss is so common among Westerners, many write it off as an inevitable fact of aging. Alzheimer's disease, a severe form of dementia, is also on the rise, now affecting an estimated 5.4 million Americans. Alzheimer's is a devastating disease that develops slowly and gets progressively worse.
The first stages involve mild memory loss, but as the disease progresses, it can make you unable to carry on a conversation or respond to your external environment. It's been projected that in the next 20 years, Alzheimer's will affect one in four Americans, rivaling the current prevalence of obesity and diabetes!
However, losing your memory is not part of “normal” aging—regardless of the severity—and the answer to “senior moments” and more severe dementia is the same. These are lifestyle-related conditions that are largely, if not entirely preventable by a healthy diet and lifestyle.
It's important to realize that modern medicine has very little to offer in terms of treatment, so prevention is paramount, and the earlier you start, the better. I've written a number of articles over the past few years highlighting important research into the effectiveness of diet and lifestyle intervention on Alzheimer's.
Most recently, a study published in JAMA found that vitamin E may help delay the loss of function, such as planning and organizing, in Alzheimer's patients.
How Vitamin E May Benefit Alzheimer's Patients
The study compared the effects of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) and the Alzheimer's drug memantine, to assess which one might be more effective for slowing progression of mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease in patients taking an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.
Alzheimer's has been linked to a deficiency in the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are frequently used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's.
Data from 561 patients diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer's was assessed in this double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group, randomized clinical trial. Participants were divided into four groups, and received either:
- 2,000 IUs per day of vitamin E
- 20 mg per day of the drug memantine
- A combination of vitamin E and mematine
Follow up was just over two years. Results showed that clinical progression of Alzheimer's slowed by 19 percent per year in the group receiving vitamin E, compared with placebo. (This delay translated into just over six months of delayed progression over the two-year follow-up period.)
Caregiver time also increased the least in the group receiving vitamin E. This does not mean vitamin E prevents the disease, but it appears it might allow patients to retain their independence a bit longer. The authors concluded that:
“Patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's Disease (AD), 2,000 IU/day of alpha tocopherol compared with placebo resulted in slower functional decline. There were no significant differences in the groups receiving memantine alone or memantine plus alpha tocopherol. These findings suggest benefit of alpha tocopherol in mild to moderate AD by slowing functional decline and decreasing caregiver burden.”
All Vitamin E Are Not Created Equal
Ever since its discovery in 1922 there has been much discussion over what type of vitamin E is best. This is information that the media or your doctor will not likely share with you when they respond to new studies like this. Many do not know that the term “vitamin E” actually refers to a family of at least eight fat-soluble antioxidant compounds, divided into two groups of molecules:
- Tocopherols (which are considered the “true” vitamin E)
Each of the tocopherol and tocotrienol subfamilies also contains four different forms:
Each one of these subgroups has its own unique biological effects. Ideally, vitamin E should be consumed in the broader family of mixed natural tocopherols and tocotrienols, (also referred to as full-spectrum vitamin E) to get the maximum benefits. And there's the main problem: the vitamin E most often referred to and sold in most stores is a synthetic form of the vitamin, which really should NOT be used if you want to reap any of its health benefits.
Besides the potential benefit for Alzheimer's patients, research has found vitamin E can be helpful in the prevention of certain cancers.6 For example, a study published in the International Journal of Cancer in 20117 found that gamma-tocotrienol, a cofactor found in natural vitamin E preparations, decreases prostate tumor formation by 75 percent. An earlier study, published in 2008 found that 300 IUs of vitamin E per day reduced lung cancer risk by 61 percent. You can tell what you're buying by carefully reading the label.
- Natural vitamin E is always listed as the “d-” form (d-alpha-tocopherol, d-beta-tocopherol, etc.)
- Synthetic vitamin E is listed as “dl-” forms
Note that when vitamin E is stabilized by adding either succinic acid or acetic acid, the chemical name changes from tocopherol to tocopheryl (as in d-alpha-tocopheryl succinate, for example).
Food Is Your Best Source of Vitamin E
Your body can easily distinguish between natural and synthetic vitamins, and several studies have shown that natural vitamin E is between two and three times as bioactive as the same amount of synthetic vitamin E. Ideally, you'll want to get most if not all your vitamin E from the foods you eat. This way, there's no question you're getting the kind your body can use. Tocopherol and its subgroups are found in certain nuts and green leafy vegetables. Sources of tocotrienols include palm oil, rice bran, and barley oils. However, many Americans do not get nearly enough of dietary vitamin E due to their poor dietary choices.
Always remember that not only are nuts and leafy greens rich in vitamin E, they also contain hundreds of other natural chemicals that create a synergistic effect where the total benefit is far greater than the sum of its parts. When buying vegetables, I strongly recommend you try to find locally grown organic produce, as they often contain greater concentrations of vital nutrients.
While supplementation with the appropriate vitamin E supplement can be helpful, you need to be very cautions. Why? Because, most vitamin E supplements are synthetic and only provide one of the tocopherols and none of the tocotrienols. They tend to overdose on high amounts of synthetic D alpha tocopherol, completely unbalanced with the other parts of the vitamin E family discussed above, and that can cause more harm than good. That is likely the result of some of the negative studies you might have previously seen on vitamin E.
Interestingly, and not surprisingly, that is precisely what happened in the featured study. They used a VERY high dose of synthetic alpha-tocopherol (2,000 IUs). This was not balanced with tocotrienols or any of the other tocopherols (beta, gamma, and delta). Can you imagine what the results would have been had they used the balanced natural version? Chances are, the benefits would have been even greater.
Alzheimer’s Association’s call for caution:
“No one should take vitamin E to treat Alzheimer’s disease except under the supervision of a physician. Vitamin E — especially at the high doses used in the ADCS study — can negatively interact with other medications, including those prescribed to keep blood from clotting or to lower cholesterol.”
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