Currently incurable, Alzheimer’s disease affects more than five million people in the United States. Scientists and researchers are working to understand how to attack the disease. One avenue, which has been explored with mixed opinions, is the use of vitamin E.
J. Wesson Ashford, M.D., a clinical professor at the Stanford School of Medicine and chair of the Memory Screening Advisory Board for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), began focusing on the study of Alzheimer’s disease in 1978. He made many advances in research of the disease, notably publishing the first double-blind study of a cholinesterase drug to treat the disease. He explains that the idea of using of vitamin E for anti-aging processes goes back to the 1970s.
“Vitamin E has been known as an antioxidant for a long time, and there was even thought at one time that it slowed aging,” Ashford says. “Antioxidants protect the body and brain from free radicals, which have been hypothesized to play a role in aging at a biochemical level. In the 1990s, the hypothesis was developed that free radicals and oxidation processes might contribute to or cause Alzheimer’s disease.”
Ashford took part in the first vitamin E trial in Alzheimer’s disease in 1997 and there have been several subsequent trials that have followed. However, Ashford notes that the results of these trials show the use of vitamin E to be of questionable benefit since effectiveness has varied throughout the early studies.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association did find that among patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, 2000 IU/d of alpha tocopherol (vitamin E) compared with a placebo resulted in slower functional decline. Those who were given the daily dose of vitamin E reported a slower annual rate of decline in daily living activities. These findings are encouraging and scientists are taking a closer look at vitamin E to determine if it might help delay onset of the disease.
These findings do not mean that patients should immediately begin a regimen of vitamin E consumption because there are some caveats to the supplement. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association takes a position of caution regarding the use of vitamin E to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The foundation notes a 2005 meta-analysis which concluded that high doses of vitamin E (more than 400 IU/d per day) may increase all-cause mortality and should be avoided.
The study notes that the recommendation to use vitamin E to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s “may be premature until larger randomized, controlled clinical trials evaluate the efficacy and safety of high-dosage vitamin E supplementation in patients with Alzheimer disease.”
Large doses of the antioxidant vitamin E, which is generally a beneficial supplement, actually creates an imbalance of free radical production and destruction. When unnatural quantities of vitamin E are consumed this imbalance creates an abnormal environment where the immune system is actually less able to kill free radicals. Put simply, you can have too much of a good thing.
“Some doctors currently prescribe vitamin E to their Alzheimer’s patients, but no scientific consensus has yet been reached regarding the true benefits of tocopherol in ameliorating dementia symptoms,” a spokesperson for the science staff of the Alzheimer’s Association states.
Ultimately, Ashford suggests it would probably be best to await expert recommendations before embarking on a vitamin E regimen. As research on the topic continues, there are some preventative measures that can be taken to potentially lessen the impact of Alzheimer’s disease. The AFA encourages screening for cognitive problems so that difficulties that may be indicative of early, developing dementia can be discovered as soon as possible. For example, using memtrax.com, an online tool that Ashford developed, helps users quickly and easily check their memory through a series of tests. By determining potential memory issues early on, earlier diagnoses and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is probable.
“Our hope is that individuals can take responsibility for monitoring their own memory and other cognitive functions and discuss any possible problems with their clinicians if a possible problem is found,” Ashford says.
To learn more about the use of Vitamin E and Alzheimer’s disease, consider the following resources: