Vitamin B 'puts off Alzheimer's'
By Jane Hughes
Health correspondent, BBC News
Brain scan of a person with Alzheimer's
A new study suggests high doses of B vitamins may halve the rate
of brain shrinkage in older people experiencing some of the warning
signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Brain shrinkage is one of the
symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, which often leads to dementia.
Researchers say this could be
the first step towards finding a way to delay the onset of Alzheimer's.
Experts said the findings were
important but more research was needed.
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
This condition, marked by mild
memory lapses and language problems, is beyond what can be explained
by normal ageing and can be a precursor to Alzheimer's and other
forms of dementia.
Half of the volunteers were
given a daily tablet containing levels of the B vitamins folate,
B6 and B12 well above the recommended daily amount. The other
half were given a placebo.
After two years, the rate at
which their brains had shrunk was measured.
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 team, from the Oxford Project
to investigate Memory and Ageing (Optima), found that on average,
in those taking vitamin supplements, brain shrinkage slowed by
In some cases it slowed by more than 50%, making
their brain atrophy no worse than that of people without cognitive
'Protecting' the brain
Certain B vitamins - folic acid, vitamin B6 and B12 - control
levels of a substance known as homocysteine in the blood. High
levels of homocysteine are associated with faster brain shrinkage
and Alzheimer's disease.
"These vitamins are doing something
to the brain structure - they're protecting it, and that's very
important because we need to protect the brain to prevent Alzheimer's”
Professor David Smith
The study authors believe it was the B vitamins' effect on levels
of homocysteine that helped slow the rate of brain shrinkage.
The study author, Professor David Smith, said
the results were more significant than he had expected.
"It's a bigger effect than anyone could
have predicted," he said, "and it's telling us something
"These vitamins are doing something to the
brain structure - they're protecting it, and that's very important
because we need to protect the brain to prevent Alzheimer's."
He said more research was now needed to see whether
high doses of B vitamins actually prevented the development of
Alzheimer's in people with mild cognitive impairment.
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."
B vitamins are found naturally
in many foods, including meat, fish, eggs and green vegetables.
Experts are advising against taking higher than
recommended levels in the light of these findings.
Chris Kennard, chair of the Medical Research
Council's Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, said:
"We must be cautious when recommending supplements like vitamin
B as there are separate health risks if taken in too high doses.
"Further research is required before
we can recommend the supplement as a treatment for neurodegenerative
diseases, such as Alzheimer's."
Symptoms of vitamin B12 or folate deficiency
Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia can
cause a wide range of symptoms. These usually develop gradually
at first, and can worsen if the condition goes untreated.
You should see your GP if you think you may have
a vitamin B12 or folate deficiency. These conditions can often
be diagnosed based on your symptoms and the results of a blood
test. Read more about diagnosing vitamin B12 or folate deficiency
It's important for vitamin B12 or folate deficiency
anaemia to be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible because,
although many of the symptoms will improve with treatment, some
problems caused by the condition can be irreversible.
General symptoms of anaemia (where you have
fewer red blood cells than normal or you have an abnormally
low amount of a substance called haemoglobin in each red blood
• extreme tiredness (fatigue)
• lack of energy (lethargy)
• feeling faint
• pale skin
• noticeable heartbeats (palpitations)
• hearing sounds coming from inside their body, rather
than from an outside source (tinnitus)
• loss of appetite and weight loss
Vitamin B12 deficiency
If you have anaemia caused by a vitamin B12
deficiency, you may have other symptoms in addition to those
listed above, such as:
• a pale yellow tinge to your skin
• a sore and red tongue (glossitis)
• mouth ulcers
• pins and needles (paraesthesia)
• changes in the way that you walk and move around
• disturbed vision
• changes in the way you think, feel and behave
• a decline in your mental abilities, such as memory,
understanding and judgement (dementia).
Some of these symptoms can also occur in people
who have a vitamin B12 deficiency, but have not developed anaemia.
Additional symptoms in people with anaemia
caused by a folate deficiency can include:
• numbness and tingling in the feet and hands
• muscle weakness
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