Vitamin E for Alzheimer’s

There are a staggering 1.2 million people in Australia alone caring for a person with dementia. When you consider that there are currently 321,000 people with dementia in Australia and that there are 36 million people worldwide with dementia then the number of people whose lives are directly impacted by the condition is probably in excess of 100 million. Alzheimer’s Disease is the major cause of dementia which is why a new study showing that vitamin E can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s is of importance for so many people.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting up to 70 per cent of all people with dementia. It was first recorded in 1907 by Dr Alois Alzheimer who reported the case of Auguste Deter, a middle-aged woman with dementia and specific changes in her brain. For the next 60 years Alzheimer’s disease was considered a rare condition that afflicted people under the age of 65. It was not until the 1970s that Dr Robert Katzman declared (rather boldly at the time) that senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were the same condition and that neither were a normal part of ageing.

In Alzheimer’s Disease there is shrinking of the outer layer of the brain, the cortex. This is the region of the brain involved in memory, language, and judgement. The shrinking of the brain is caused by the death of the brain cells. In addition there are two types of deposits in brains with Alzheimer’s. One kind of deposit is found outside the brain cells, these are known as plaques, and the other type of deposit found inside brain cells is known as “neurofibrillary tangles”. These plaques impair synapses so signals cannot pass between brain cells. Tangles kill brain cells by preventing the normal transport of food and energy around the brain cell. The outer part of the brain is usually the area affected first by the disease. Short-term memory loss is therefore one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but as the disease progresses to deeper parts of the brain, long-term memory is also lost. The disease also affects many of the brain\’s other functions and consequently, many other aspects of behaviour are disturbed.

Previous research has shown that vitamin E can slow progression of the disease in people with moderately severe Alzheimer’s but in the new study researchers wanted to see whether it might also be useful in cases of mild cognitive impairment that typically precedes Alzheimer’s.

Subjects for the study were more than 600 people with mild cognitive impairment recruited from medical centres between 2007 and 2012. The subjects were divided into four groups with one group receiving 2,000 iu of vitamin E daily (this is quite a high dose). Group two received the Alzheimer’s drug memantine, group three took both vitamin E and memantine, and group four took placebo pills.

Using a standardised scale to measure the subject’s capacity to perform basic life tasks the results showed that only the group taking vitamin E showed a slowed rate of decline in a ability to perform these tasks. These results came after an average of 2.3 years and the effects translate in practical terms to a person being able to dress or bathe themselves for six months longer.

The researchers stress that this does not show that vitamin E will prevent Alzheimer’s but it does offer some hope for those with the disease and those caring for them.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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