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Vitamin B may reduce risk of Alzheimer's PDF Print Email

A new study suggests high doses of vitamin B may halve the speed of brain shrinkage in older people.


Brain shrinkage is one of the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, which often leads to dementia. Researchers believe this could be the first step towards discovering a way to delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Experts think these are important findings but more research is needed.
The researchers from the University of Oxford found that taking three tablets of B vitamins every day slows the brain shrinkage that happens with age, causing early signs of dementia such as memory lapses and language problems. The study, published in the journal Public Library of Science One, looked at 168 elderly people experiencing levels of mental decline known as mild cognitive impairment. Half of the volunteers were given a tablet containing levels of the B vitamins folate, B6 and B12 every day well above the recommended daily amount. The other half were given a placebo.
The average brain shrinks at a rate of 0.5% a year after the age of 60. The brains of those with mild cognitive impairment shrink twice as fast. Alzheimer's patients have brain shrinkage of 2.5% a year. The trial discovered that after two years, the rate at which their brains had shrunk was measured.  MRI scans showed the brains of those who had taken the vitamins had shrunk less – by 0.76 per cent a year – than those given placebo (1.08 per cent) – a 31 per cent difference. In the quarter of elderly people who responded best, the reduction in the rate of shrinkage was 53 per cent. Cognitive tests show those with the least shrinkage perform best. Although not designed to measure mental ability, the researchers found that people with the lowest rates of shrinkage had the highest mental test scores.
Large doses of around 300 times the daily recommended intake of B12 and four times the recommended levels of folic acid were used in the trial. The researchers said this meant they acted like a pharmaceutical drug rather than a nutritional supplement and would require further safety tests. They are now seeking funding for another trial.
A vitamin pill that reduces the mental decline associated with ageing would have significant implications. About 1.5 million people in the UK have problems with memory, language or other mental functions known as Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), half of whom go on to develop Alzheimer's or another form of dementia within five years. Even a slight slowing of this process would have huge benefits. B vitamins are found naturally in meat, fish, green vegetables, whole grains, eggs and potatoes. They promote cell growth, enhance the immune system and help maintain healthy skin and bones. Processed foods such contain lower levels of B vitamins and elderly people on a limited diet can become deficient. Low levels are common in Western populations. However, taking B vitamin supplements in large doses can be harmful. There are eight B vitamins, but only three were used in the study – B6, B12 and folic acid (B9).
Professor David Smith of the Department of Pharmacology, Oxford University, and co-leader of the trial, said: "This is a very striking, dramatic result. It is our hope that this simple and safe treatment will delay the development of Alzheimer's disease in many people who suffer from mild memory problems. "These are immensely promising results but we do need to do more trials to conclude whether these particular B vitamins can slow or prevent development of Alzheimer's. So I wouldn't yet recommend that anyone getting a bit older and beginning to be worried about memory lapses should rush out and buy vitamin B supplements without seeing a doctor."
Professor Smith stated that a key issue was whether MCI was a mild manifestation of the more extreme Alzheimer's disease. "Is this a continuum? Are we seeing a disease that begins a long time ago and gets worse and worse? I personally think so."The long-term effects of taking large amounts of the vitamins were not known, and there was some evidence that high folate intake could be linked to cancer, he said. However, asked if he would try the vitamin treatment if he was diagnosed with MCI he said: "Yes, no hesitation. I would take it."
The Alzheimer's Research Trust, which co-funded the study, also called for further investigation.
"These are very important results, with B vitamins now showing a prospect of protecting some people from Alzheimer's in old age," said chief executive Rebecca Wood. "The strong findings must inspire an expanded trial to follow people expected to develop Alzheimer's."
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a loss of cognitive ability caused by diseases such as Alzheimer's. It causes problems with memory and speech and the skills needed to carry out normal daily activities, meaning that many sufferers are unable to properly care for themselves. The condition is most common in the over-65s, affecting one in 20. It is thought that the cost to the UK economy of dealing with dementia will be £27bn a year by 2018.
Dementia usually worsens slowly over time and there is no cure. However, doctors can ease the severity of the symptoms and slow their onset using drugs and other treatments. Depression also affects 20 to 30 per cent of people who have dementia, and about 20 per cent have anxiety.