Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 5.4 million Americans. But the number of people whose lives are forever changed by the emotional impact of experiencing a loved one's mental decline is far greater.
Drug companies have worked aggressively to develop a treatment for this condition. And yet, the efforts have failed—miserably. No pharmaceutical intervention has demonstrated any meaningful effectiveness to treat or even slow the mental decline of Alzheimer’s disease.
Recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association published what I hope will become a landmark study. Researchers announced the results of a clinical trial of vitamin E in people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. And their findings could revolutionize our approach to the treatment of this disease, the most common cause of dementia in America.
The study looked at the effect of dietary supplementation using 2,000 international units of nonprescription vitamin E daily in a large group of elderly Alzheimer’s patients and compared their results over an average of around two years to similar patients who received a placebo, a pharmaceutical marketed as a “treatment” for Alzheimer’s disease (memantine), or a combination of memantine along with vitamin E.
One of the standardized tests used is called the Mini Mental Status Examination or MMSE. This 30-question exam provides information in areas like orientation, arithmetic and memory, and is often a part of the standard neurological examination.
As seen below, the results in terms of slowing the decline on the MMSE were dramatic. Vitamin E showed substantial effectiveness while the drug offered no benefit and actually led to more aggressive decline even when compared to the placebo.
The best results were found among the patients who received vitamin E alone. And in these patients, the annual rate of decline in ability to perform day-to-day tasks (like preparing meals and bathing) slowed by an astounding 20%.
While these results are far from representing a cure for Alzheimer’s, nonetheless it shows that vitamin E did allow Alzheimer’s patients to get by with less help from caregivers and maintain their independence longer. And this was in contrast to the findings in those who were given the Alzheimer’s drug memantine, either alone or in combination with vitamin E.
Last week, I had the opportunity to lecture to approximately 400 physicians and healthcare providers at a symposium presented by Scripps Health in San Diego. I asked the audience how many were aware of this study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Four people raised their hands.
It costs patients about $2,000 each year to take memantine, and the annual sales of this drug worldwide now exceed $2 billion. Clearly this is a testament to the effectiveness of advertising to physicians and the general public as our most well respected scientific journals support its lack of efficacy.
Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, meaning it protects tissues against the damaging effects of chemicals called free radicals which are produced in the body as a normal part of metabolism. It has been shown in earlier research that there is an excess of free radical activity in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. So researchers are focusing on vitamin E’s antioxidant activity as a possible explanation of its effectiveness in treating Alzheimer’s patients.
And while the dosage of vitamin E used in this study far exceeds the government’s recommended dose for healthy adults (22.4 IU daily) no serious health consequences were reported in those just taking the vitamin E. In fact, the only serious problems in the study were reported in those who were given the pharmaceutical memantine.
As a practicing neurologist treating Alzheimer’s patients each day, the results of this study are extremely encouraging. Vitamin E is widely available, doesn’t require a prescription, and is now proven to slow the progression of this devastating disease.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Vitamin E can interact with medications including the blood thinner warfarin, medications used in chemotherapy, and anti-inflammatory drugs. So it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before starting vitamin E or any nutritional supplement.
- Keep in mind that this study used synthetic vitamin E. A better choice is natural d-alpha tocopherol, not dl-alpha tocopherol. Remember, when it comes to vitamin E, dl means "don’t like."
- Another important nutritional supplement now validated to improve brain function is the omega-3, DHA. I recommend approximately 1,000 mg daily as a fish oil or derived from algae.
- Finally, never underestimate the value of regular aerobic exercise, at any age, as a scientifically proven means to reduce memory decline.
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