Vitamin E and Alzheimer's

A large daily dose of vitamin E may slow physical decline in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease, new research shows. 

The findings, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, present evidence for a low-cost treatment that may be suitable for some patients. The study, conducted by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai working with Veterans Administration Medical Centers, showed a 19 percent annual reduction in difficulty with everyday tasks like dressing and bathing.

The experiment involved 600 veterans with Alzheimer's, most of whom were women. Compared to patients who received a placebo, the vitamin E treatment resulted in about six months of functional gain over a two- to four-year period. 

The patients who participated in the study were also taking a cholinesterase inhibitor, such as Aricept, one of the only classes of drugs currently available to treat Alzheimer's. The study showed that those who took vitamin E along with memantine (brand name Namenda) did not receive the benefit, however.

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The vitamin E regimen did not improve the patients' memory or learning. The participants' level of function was assessed using the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study/Activities of Daily Living (ADCS-ADL) Inventory Score, which measures how well patients can perform essential tasks like eating, walking, and personal grooming. 

Saving Time and Money for Caregivers

Alzheimer's takes a tremendous financial toll on patients and their caregivers. Many patients end up in costly care facilities, and many caregivers are unable to hold other jobs. 

The patients taking vitamin E in the Mount Sinai study were better able to care for themselves, saving their caregivers an average of two hours per day.

Mary Sano, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine and director of research at the James J. Peters Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in New York City, served as the trial's co-investigator.

“Even the average savings of two hours per day by caregivers seen in the vitamin E group is estimated to be about $8,000 per person per year,” she told Healthline.

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Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer's Association, told Healthline that vitamin E should only be taken with a physician's guidance. She said it can interact with blood thinners and cholesterol medications, for example, and has been linked to a slightly increased risk of death at high doses.

Still, she called the research “well-done” and worthy of replication by other scientists. Snyder said we need to better understand why vitamin E benefits some Alzheimer's patients.

Sano noted that this is the first time the Veterans Administration has funded a study of Alzheimer's patients. “There's a lot of time being spent on prevention, but we can't forsake those who have the disease," she said. "Here is a treatment that won't get put forward by any drug company.”

Read More: A Brief History of Alzheimer's Disease »