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Last updated at 7:54 AM on 14th September 2010
Never forget: Vitamin B has been proven to prevent memory loss
For the past two years 79-year-old Sheila Alonzo has been taking a daily tablet containing very high doses of three B vitamins. As a result, she says her memory is ‘much better’.
‘I’m no longer worried about trying to learn new things. I used to say I was too old to bother – not any more,’ she says. Sheila, a retired secretary, was one of several hundred elderly people who took part in a ground-breaking trial, the findings of which were reported last week.
Researchers at Oxford University found that the mild memory problems suffered by healthy people stopped getting worse when they took a B vitamin supplement.
About one-and-a-half million people in the UK suffer fromage-related memory loss, or ‘mild cognitive impairment’. It startsgradually – forgetting keys, wondering what you came into the shop tobuy – but half of those affected will progress to Alzheimer’s anddementia within five years.
Until now there has been no way to slow down memory loss. But for Sheila, vitamin B has had a significant impact.
‘Ican still chauffeur my grandchildren around and I reckon I now functionpretty well mentally,’ she says. ‘I was starting to lose interest inthings, but now I’m catching up on an old passion I had for massiveengineering projects. I’ve been watching some fascinating documentariesand I’m brushing up on my computer skills.’
With results like this, should we all now be popping vitamin B pills? we asked the experts for their views…
MY MEMORY IS GETTING WORSE, DO I NEED VITAMIN B PILLS?
The people in the Oxford University trial were taking a single pill containing three types of vitamin B (folic acid and vitamin B6 and B12) all in doses far in excess of the recommended daily amount (RDA)
. the pill contained 0.8mg of folic acid (twice the RDA), 0.5mg of B12 (250 times the RDA) and 20mg of B6 (12 times the RDA).
This single pill is not available in the UK, although it is on sale in Sweden. the natural temptation is to rush off and fill yourself with high-dose vitamin B pills. But the experts and the Alzheimer’s Society have warned against this until more studies have been done. are they being over-cautious?
well, when you consider what the study showed, they could be saving you time and money. That’s because the study only involved patients who’d already been diagnosed with ‘mild cognitive impairment’. It showed that taking B vitamins can stop it getting worse, at least for two years.
What the study didn’t show was if a high-dose supplement will act as a preventative. It also didn’t look at whether keeping mild impairment at bay will then stave off Alzheimer’s.
Patients with Alzheimer’s were excluded from the trial. Vitamin B might do these other things, but the trials haven’t been done so we don’t know yet.
WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT VITAMIN B?
Vitamin B helps keep an amino acid called homocysteine at a healthy level. Raised homocysteine has been linked with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and a faster rate of brain shrinkage in the elderly.
If your levels have gone up, boosting your B vitamin intake is the only way to bring homocysteine down and to slow brain shrinkage. no drug can do this.
Exactly how reducing homocysteine affects brain shrinkage isn’t clear yet, but this new study does mean homocysteine, currently an obscure component of the body’s chemistry, could become as much a household word as cholesterol or blood sugar.
The study found that the more homocysteine you had at the start, the more you benefited from the vitamins.
In people with a high homocysteine level (more than 13 micromoles per litre) the pill slowed the rate their brain shrank by 50 per cent. However, vitamin B made no difference to people with healthy homocysteine levels (below nine).
HOW DO I KNOW IF I NEED TO TAKE A PILL?
The study shows vitamin B pills will help if you have mild cognitive impairment combined with high homocysteine levels. If this describes you, it’s time to act, says Professor Helga Refsum, co-author of the study and a leading homocysteine researcher at the University of Oslo.
‘If you don’t take B vitamins you are going to have a faster rate of brain atrophy,’ she warns.
Your GP can refer you to a memory clinic for the cognitive test and if you score at a ‘mildly impaired’ level they may agree to do a homocysteine test (a simple blood test) although it is a postcode lottery on the NHS. Failing that, ask to be referred to a private clinic. Home-testing kits are also available on the web.
WHY DON’T I JUST TAKE A SUPPLEMENT ANYWAY?
Most people assume that vitamins, even in large doses, are not harmful because they are ‘natural’.
Indeed there were no signs of side-effects during the trial over the two years it lasted.
Participants were asked every three months about side-effects, but nothing serious was reported and there was no difference between those getting the placebo and those on the vitamins.
Another potential problem in the longer term is cancer, warns Professor Refsum.
‘I am against everyone taking high doses because of a possible cancer risk with folic acid and other possible unknown side-effects.’
But the risk of cancer is small and is linked to taking folic acid in large amounts.
Research suggests that even then it affects only smokers and people with a certain gene linked to processing the vitamin. There’s no evidence of any risks associated with taking the other vitamins at the levels used in the study.
WOULD EATING VITAMIN B-RICH FOOD HELP?
‘everyone agrees that a healthy balanced diet is the best way to prevent many chronic diseases like diabetes, heart attacks and Alzheimer’s,’ says Professor Refsum.
Vitamin B12 sources include meat and fish; folic acid and B6 are found in asparagus, lentils, most beans, and leafy green vegetables.
So how easy is it to get the recommended amounts? while getting enough of the other vitamin Bs is not a problem if you eat reasonably well, B12 can be tricky as you get older because you don’t absorb it as efficiently, says the study’s co-author, Professor David Smith of the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford.
‘Vegetarians who don’t have any milk or fish are also likely to become deficient. I believe it makes sense for those groups to take a supplement.’
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO PROTECT MYSELF?
Even though most of us are unlikely to suffer from brain shrinkage until we are in our 60s, it makes sense to get a reasonable intake of B vitamins to keep your homocysteine at a healthy level.
‘It’s a very good marker of a healthy lifestyle,’ says Professor Refsum. ‘Drinking lots of coffee, eating cake, smoking, not exercising — these are all things that can push your homocysteine up. A high level is usually the sign of a poor lifestyle or a disease.’
It’s also worth keeping an eye on certain prescription drugs. ones that reduce stomach acid, such as Losec (omeprazole), are given to many elderly patients to treat heartburn, but they can also reduce the amount of B12 you absorb from your diet (they don’t have this effect on supplements).
These drugs are often over-prescribed, so check if the one you or a relative is taking is necessary. If it is, a supplement can compensate.
The diabetes drug metformin also reduces B12 absorption by 30 per cent, according to a trial published in the BMJ this summer.
SHOULD ALL OLDER PEOPLE TAKE VITAMIN B?
Professor Smith says it may be time to have a debate about whether the vitamin recommendations for the elderly should be changed.
‘There is evidence that the elderly don’t eat the right food to keep their B vitamin levels up and it is likely that homocysteine rises naturally with age and at the same time we become less efficient at absorbing B vitamins from the diet.’
The Alzheimer’s Society is not convinced. ‘Previous studies with B vitamins have been very disappointing and we wouldn’t want to raise people’s expectations,’ said director of research Professor Clive Ballard.
‘more research is necessary to show how vitamin B therapy may prevent or delay dementia. we know the best way to reduce your risk is to have a healthy balanced diet.’
However, at least one doctor in the UK who is a specialist in B vitamins and brain disorders has been treating his patients with even higher doses than the Oxford study.
‘It takes about three years from the time memory problems start for people to go to the doctor,’ says Dr Andrew Mccaddon, a GP in Wales. ‘So some of my patients have already progressed to Alzheimer’s when they come to see me. I find the vitamins help them.’
The family of one patient the Mail spoke to believed the vitamin helped their relation’s condition ‘plateau’.
‘My mother-in-law Kathleen still forgets things,’ says Pamela RRoberts, ‘but she lives on her own in sheltered housing and she has a life. That’s good for someone three years into Alzheimer’s.’
Typically, Dr Mccaddon gives patients 5mg of folic acid (six times the amount used in the trial), 1mg of B12 (double the trial dose) and 600mg of a protein used by the brain.