Staving off Alzheimer’s with B vitamins

October 13, 2011

A study sponsored by Oxford University has found that high dosages of B vitamins may help slow the onset and progression of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which for many people is the first step to dementia. 

Julie Godfrey

Julie Godfrey

The focus was on reducing levels of homocysteine in the bloodstream. At elevated levels, the amino acid homocysteine can damage the lining of blood vessels and is associated with dementia, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Usually, homocysteine is converted in the body to various substances that are essential for maintaining good health. But to do this successfully, it needs a good supply of vitamins B6, B12, folic acid and zinc. B2 and magnesium are also useful.

As people age, nutrient absorption often declines, leading to deficiencies. In studies on Alzheimer’s disease, patients tend to have a combination of high homocysteine and low B vitamin levels. Accordingly, those with the highest levels of homocysteine at the beginning of this study showed the best improvement in memory and cognitive terms and reduced brain shrinkage after treatment with B vitamins. 

Headlines like these can be dangerous, as they often encourage people to go out and empty the shelves of supplements, regardless of whether this is necessary or safe. If you believe that you or a relative has MCI, or there is a family history of Alzheimer’s, you should first talk to your doctor or nutritionist. 

You can also request a homocysteine test. An “H” score of 7 or less is healthy; more than 15 suggests that you have a problem and should see a doctor. For anything in between, you need to decide what, if any, intervention is required. If the consensus is that supplements could help, seek a professional’s advice on dosages and precisely which ones to take, as some formulations are more effective than others. 

You can also modify your diet to increase intake and absorption of the necessary nutrients. Good sources of B2 include liver, mackerel, mushrooms, yogurt, spinach, asparagus and broccoli. For B6, consume spinach, raw red peppers, tuna, cauliflower, mustard greens, bananas, raw celery, asparagus, broccoli and watermelon. Zinc, found in liver, beef, lamb, seeds and nuts, helps with B6 absorption. Good B12 sources include liver, sardines, snapper, salmon, beef and lamb. Folic acid sources include liver, beans, leafy greens, asparagus, wheat germ, avocados, nuts and sesame seeds. In general, beware of smoking and excess alcohol, which can hinder absorption. 

Also consider other brain foods such as eggs, which supply building blocks for brain neurotransmitters, oily fish for their omega-3 fatty acids, and fruit and vegetables such as berries, leafy greens and root vegetables for their antioxidant properties. 

Finally, both mental and physical exercise can keep your brain healthy and firing on all cylinders. Mental exercise keeps the neural connections alive, and physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain, bringing with it much needed oxygen and nutrients. 

Often the symptoms of dementia appear long after the damage has commenced, so act now to increase your chances of a long and enjoyable life.

Julie Godfrey, B.Sc. (Hons), is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). For more information, see www.foreverhealthyco.com or email jgodfrey@foreverhealthyco.com

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