Dear Dr. Garner,
My mother is 72 and has mild memory loss. Lately, she is becoming even more forgetful.
I fear that she is going to soon have a full-blown case of Alzheimer’s disease. She has been taking Aricept for some time without any noticeable difference.
Is there anything new on the market that you would suggest she try?
I saw something on TV the other day about taking multiple vitamins. This sounds simplistic, but I wonder if it works. I really appreciate any advice you could give me.
Forgetful Mother in Astoria
Dear Forgetful Mother,
Alzheimer’s disease, as I am sure you are aware, is a devastating disease which often follows a rapid downhill course. No significant disease-altering therapy has come on the market in the past 10 years for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Some of the medications available help to maximize the function of a patient but cannot really stop the progression of the brain changes, specifically the loss of brain tissue.
I have read with interest the results of a new study conducted by researchers from Oxford University. In the study, three simple, over-the-counter vitamins – B6, B12 and folic acid – were used to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. These vitamins have essentially no side effects, and there is no downside to trying them. In addition, simple things like diet, exercise and socializing, which already have been found to be helpful, are encouraged.
In the study, those who had mild memory loss and high levels of a protein known as homocysteine, which has been linked to dementia, showed the best result. The study found that the amount of brain tissue declined five percent in those taking a placebo compared with 0.6 percent in those who took the vitamins.
The supplements, which cost about 30 cents a day, actually almost stopped the progression of the disease compared to the placebo group who continued to have increasing memory problems. This is the first and only time that Alzheimer’s disease has been able to be modified through a drug treatment.
As people age, their brain shrinks. This shrinkage is very noticeable in someone with Alzheimer’s disease. If the pace can be slowed before full-blown Alzheimer’s develops, it may delay the disease progression so that older people can enjoy better lives. By delaying the onset by just five years, the number of people dying from Alzheimer’s disease can be cut in half.
Vitamin B12 is found in liver, fish and milk, and folic acid is in fruit and vegetables. Deficiency of folic acid and B vitamins is already linked to dementia. This vitamin regimen has been particularly successful in those who have a mild form of Alzheimer’s and elevated levels of homocysteine.
Early Stage Is Key
If someone already has full-blown Alzheimer’s disease, this has not been noted to provide any help. The trick is to catch patients at an early stage. The key is that it has only been proven to work on people with an elevated homocysteine level. Your doctor can determine this from a simple blood test.
Studies are now underway on a much larger scale to help evaluate the effects of the vitamins. At this point, it is too early to put everyone on B vitamins. The evidence is just not there yet. It is hoped that with the larger studies and further investigation, there will be improvement in the treatments available for this dreaded disease.
I think it is important to get your mother evaluated by a doctor to help determine the level of her memory loss. Homocystein levels must be obtained. If the homocysteine level is high, then your doctor and you can decide if a B-vitamin regimen is right for her. Vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid can be attained through a balanced diet, but this study will be used to determine specific dosages.
The vitamins are widely available and have no significant harmful effects. While it looks as if there is no downside to the process, it is essential to check with your doctor.[hr]
Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Ch. 97 Time Warner and Ch. 30 Cablevision.