New Hope for Vitamin E: Supplements May Slow Symptoms of Alzheimer’s

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The latest study shows vitamin E may have more benefits than memory drugs in combating the disease.

For patients with mild to moderate forms of the neurodegenerative disorder, a daily dose of 2,000 IUs of vitamin E safely and effectively slowed the functional decline of Alzheimer’s, according to the study published in JAMA.

Researchers from the Minneapolis VA Health Care System split a group of 613 Alzheimer’s patients at 14 Veterans Affairs medical centers into three groups. One group got the dosage of vitamin E, another received the drug memantine–which can preserve nerve function in patients with Alzheimer’s–and a third group got a placebo.

Over the follow-up time of 2.3 years, those who received vitamin E showed slower decline in their ability to perform daily activities such as planning, making meals and shopping, than participants receiving the placebo. The annual rate of such decline among those receiving vitamin E was reduced by 19 percent, which translated to a slowdown in the progression of these daily functions of 6.2 months.  The memantine did not have the same clinical benefit.

(MORE: Docs Say Stop Taking Multivitamins)

While exciting, the findings add to the confusion over the emerging research suggesting that supplements have little or no health benefits. Increasingly, studies show that the best way to get nutrients is through a healthy diet. But the current study’s author Dr. Maurice W. Dysken, of Minneapolis VA Health Care System, says Alzheimer’s disease may be somewhat of an exception. “We consider vitamin E more like a medication than a supplement,” he says of its use in Alzheimer’s patients. “The dosage in a multivitamin is much lower. We found our dosage to be safe.”

An average dose of vitamin E in supplements is generally around 400 IU, whereas the researchers used 2,000 IU.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Denis A. Evans of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago wrote that as with most Alzheimer’s trials, the effect was still modest, and likely would be more relevant to treating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease rather than reversing it. The study also did not show any benefit in reducing cognitive decline or memory loss. “The importance of treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease is clear, but finding the best balance between treatment and prevention efforts is challenging for this grim disease affecting millions of people from all developed countries,” he says. But if patients can remain independent for longer periods of time while taking Vitamin E, that could relieve some of the burden on their caregivers. So while experts aren’t ready to recommend that patients start taking the higher doses of Vitamin E, they are eager to continue investigating what role the supplements may have in controlling some of the deficits associated with Alzheimer’s;