Could a combination of the vitamins B12, B6 and folic acid be first effective "drug" to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease? The concept looks promising. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published information about a study on aging volunteers that has demonstrated how this combination of B vitamins has, in their trials, slowed atrophy of gray matter in brain areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease. In the words of senior study author A. David Smith, professor emeritus of pharmacology at Oxford University in England, "It’s a big effect, much bigger than we would have dreamt of."
According to an article on BloombergBusinessweek.com, volunteers for the PNAS study were given either a placebo or a combination of 0.5 milligrams of vitamin B12, 20 milligrams of vitamin B6 and 0.8 milligrams of folic acid. At the start of the trial, the participant’s brains were scanned using magnetic-resonance imaging. Blood levels of the protein homocysteine were also measured. The tests were repeated two years later.
The two MRI scans were compared to see how much gray matter was lost in brain regions most affected by Alzheimer’s disease. In doing so, the researchers could see that the participants taking the vitamin cocktail showed a significantly smaller amount of brain shrinkage in those specific regions than in the control subjects.
The PNAS study tracked 156 people ages 70 and older who had mild memory loss and high levels of homocysteine, which has been linked to dementia. Among people with elevated homocysteine, the study found that the amount of gray matter declined 5.2 percent in those taking a placebo, compared with 0.6 percent in those who took the vitamin cocktail. Smith declared that, "It’s the first and only disease-modifying treatment that’s worked. We have proved the concept that you can modify the disease."
The aging brain
As people age their brains shrink approximately 0.5 percent a year from the age of 60. If there is a deficiency of B12, or if mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s disease is present, the rate of shrinkage is accelerated. These researchers say that slowing the shrinkage of the brain may delay the disease’s progression "so that older people can enjoy better lives until they die from another cause."
Jess Smith, who is a research communications officer at the Alzheimer’s Society in the U.K. says that, "If you delay the onset by five years, you can halve the number of people dying from it." Jess Smith is not related to A. David Smith.
A healthy diet leaning toward a Mediterranean diet, regular exercise, an active brain and socialization have been considered by many scientists to be the best existing defense against developing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
If studies continue to show that supplementing a healthy lifestyle with a combination of vitamins B12, B6 and folic acid could potentially slow brain shrinkage and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, many of us could have a better chance of enjoying the quality of our later years of life.
Of course, there’s much more to be learned. However, this study gives us hope that a relatively inexpensive method to assist in protecting our brains is at hand.
Gerlin, A. (2013, May 20) Vitamins That Cost Pennies a Day Seen Delaying Dementia. BloombergBusinessweek. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-05-20/vitamins-that-cost-pennies-a-day-seen-delaying-dementia-health
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.