How To Prevent Memory Loss?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Drugs and Health, Food and Health, Vitamins and Health

 A New Study Shows B Vitamins and Omega-3s May Prevent Memory Loss

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

how to prevent memory lossWant to know how to prevent memory loss? Every once in a while a breakthrough study comes along that has the potential to change paradigms. A recent study (Jerneren et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 102: 215-221, 2015) looking at the potential of B vitamins and omega-3s to slow brain shrinkage in the elderly is just such a study. It has the potential to forever change the way we think about preserving brain health as we age.

One of the most terrifying aspects of aging is the thought that we might literally lose our minds. On one hand, it seems to be an almost inevitable part of the aging process. Every year millions of older Americans develop mild cognitive impairment, and as they age many of them progress on to dementia or Alzheimer disease. In fact, one recent study (Plassman et al, Ann Neurol, 70: 418-426, 2014) estimated that for individuals 72 and older in the United States every 6 years:

  • 8 million will develop mild cognitive impairment.
  • 4 million will develop dementia.
  • 3 million will develop Alzheimer disease.

Unfortunately, there is no effective drug treatment for preventing this cognitive decline, and there don’t appear to be any promising new drugs on the horizon. So it is only natural to ask whether there are diet and lifestyle changes that might reduce the rate of cognitive decline as we age.

As I discussed in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” there are clinical studies suggesting that B vitamins  and omega-3 fatty acids can both slow the brain shrinkage and cognitive decline associated with aging. Unfortunately, there are also clinical studies that have come up empty. They have found no effect of B vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids on brain shrinkage or cognitive decline. Because of these conflicting clinical results, many experts are simply not ready to endorse natural approaches for preventing cognitive decline.

That’s what makes the current study (Jerneren et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 102: 215-221, 2015) paradigm-changing. If this study is correct, you need both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids together to prevent cognitive decline. Neither one will work without the other.

That would explain a lot! The previous studies have not been designed to test the effects of both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids simultaneously. Whether or not the diets of previous study participants were adequate with respect to B vitamins and omega-3s was a matter of pure chance. If the diets were adequate in both B vitamins and omega-3s, the study outcome might be positive. If the diets were only adequate in just one or the other, the outcome would almost assuredly be negative.

Why Might B Vitamins and Omega-3s Both Be Required for Brain Health?

It is easy to understand why B vitamins and omega-3s each might be important for preventing cognitive decline individually. Cognitive decline is closely associated with elevated levels of homocysteine, a toxic amino acid metabolite, and multiple clinical studies have shown that the combination of folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 is effective at lowering homocysteine levels.

The omega-3 fatty acids are an integral part of the myelin sheath that coats our neurons. You can think of myelin as being like the plastic coating on an electrical wire that allows the electrical current to travel from one end of the wire to the other without shorting out. Myelin plays essentially the same role for our neurons.

But what is the possible connection between B vitamins and omega-3s with regard to brain health? The authors of this study had an interesting hypothesis. It turns out that when homocysteine levels are elevated due to B vitamin deficiency methionine levels and the levels of a number of downstream metabolites, including phosphatidylcholine, are reduced – and phosphatidylcholine is what delivers omega-3 fatty acids to the brain.

If their hypothesis is correct, adequate levels of B vitamins are required to deliver omega-3 fatty acids to the brain. That means that omega-3 fatty acids would only be effective at preventing brain shrinkage and/or cognitive decline in studies where the subjects were receiving adequate B vitamins as well.

Conversely, if we assume, as the authors suggested, that the real role of B vitamins is to assure the presence of enough phosphatidylcholine to deliver omega-3 fatty acids to the brain, B vitamins would be effective only in clinical studies where the subjects were also getting sufficient omega-3s from their diet.

B Vitamins and Omega-3s Together May Be How To Prevent Memory Loss

vitamins help reduce cognitive declineThe study itself included 168 adults over the age of 70 (average age = 77) with mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. Half of them were given a high dose B vitamin supplement (800 ug folic acid, 500 ug vitamin B12, and 20 mg vitamin B6), and the other half were given a placebo.

Brain MRI scans were performed at the beginning of the study and again 2 years later to measure brain volume. Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were assessed at the beginning of the study. When the data were analyzed at the end of the study, the subjects with blood omega-3 levels of >590 umole/L were classified as having high omega-3 status, and subjects with blood omega-3 levels <390 umole/L were classified as having low omega-3 status.

The results were pretty striking:

  • B vitamin treatment reduced brain shrinkage by up to 70% over a two year period in adults over the age of 70.
  • The B vitamin treatment was only effective when the subjects were deficient in B vitamins at the beginning of the study, as indicated by elevated homocysteine levels.
  • The B vitamin treatment was also only effective in subjects with high omega-3 status. The B vitamin treatment had no benefit in subjects with low omega-3 status.

What Is The Significance Of This Study?

In today’s scientific world, “gold standard” clinical studies are considered to be those in which a single variable is evaluated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Unfortunately, this reductionist approach can sometimes lead to misleading and confusing results.

For example, I once attended a session in which a world renowned expert was giving his talk on colon cancer. He said, “I can show you, unequivocally, that colon cancer risk is significantly decreased by a lifestyle that includes a high-fiber diet, a low-fat diet, adequate calcium, adequate B-vitamins, exercise and weight control. But I can’t show you that any one of them, by themselves, is effective.”

The question that came to me as I heard him speak was: “What’s the message that a responsible scientist or responsible health professional should be giving to their patients or the people that they’re advising?” You’ve heard experts saying: “Don’t worry about the fat” “Don’t worry about calcium.” “Don’t worry about B-vitamins.” “Don’t worry about fiber.” “None of them can be shown to decrease the risk of colon cancer.” Is that the message that we should be giving people? Or should we really be saying what that doctor said many years ago – that a lifestyle that includes all of those things significantly decreases the risk of colon cancer?

Similarly, in a recent “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a study, Alzheimers Hope, showing that a holistic program involving exercise, a healthy diet, socialization and memory training significantly reduced cognitive decline in the elderly. Once again, it has been very difficult to reproducibly show that any of those interventions individually prevent cognitive decline.

That is what makes the current study so exciting. It is a single study, and it is a relatively small study. It definitely needs to be repeated. However, it has the potential to be a paradigm-shifting study.

Previous studies looking at the effect of B vitamins and omega-3s on brain shrinkage and/or cognitive decline have been inconsistent. Many have shown a benefit, but some have not. But, until now, none of the studies have looked at B vitamins and omega-3s together. If this study is correct, all future studies should examine the effect of both B vitamins and omega-3s together. The paradigm will have been forever changed.

Does It Matter?

The important question is whether this is just an academic discussion or does it really matter? If most older adults were getting adequate amounts of omega-3s and B vitamins in their diet, this would merely be an academic discussion. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

omega-3s help prevent cognitive declineOur oceans and rivers are becoming more and more polluted, and many people are avoiding fish because of concerns about heavy metal or PCB contamination. There is also an increasing emphasis on eating “sustainable” fish. That usually means the fish are farm raised, and farm raised fish are the most likely to be contaminated with PCBs, which is unfortunate. For example, I recently went to a nice restaurant that had a delicious sounding salmon dish on their menu. They could guarantee that the salmon was sustainably raised, but they couldn’t guarantee it was PCB-free. I chose not to eat the salmon.

It is no wonder that many adults aren’t getting enough omega-3s in their diet. In a recent “Health Tips From the Professor,” Do women get enough omeg-3 during pregnancy I reported a study showing that a shocking 75% of pregnant and lactating Canadian women were not getting enough omega-3s in their diet! Other studies suggest those of us in the United States don’t do much better.

We don’t do much better with respect to B vitamins either. For example:

  • The most frequent cause of B12 deficiency is the age related loss of the ability to absorb vitamin B12 in the upper intestine. This affects 10-30% of people over the age of 50.
  • Chronic use of acid-suppressing medications such as Prilosec, Nexium, Tagamet, Pepcid and Zantac also decreases B12 absorption and increases the risk of B12 deficiency. Millions of Americans use those drugs on a daily basis.
  • Overall, B12 deficiency has been estimated to affect about 40% of people over 60 years of age.
  • Deficiency of the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) substantially increases the requirement for folic acid. About 10% of the US population has this enzyme deficiency.
  • About 25% of Americans have low blood levels of B6

Clearly, this is not just an academic argument. Millions of older Americans are deficient in B vitamins or omega-3s or both.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recently published study looked at the effect of high dose B vitamin supplementation on brain shrinkage over a two year periods in adults over 70 (average age 77) with mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. This study differed from all previous studies in that it also measured omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood at the beginning of the study to assess omega-3 status.
  • B vitamin treatment reduced brain shrinkage by up to 70% over the two year period compared to placebo.
  • The B vitamin treatment was only effective when the subjects were deficient in B vitamins at the beginning of the study, as indicated by elevated homocysteine levels.
  • The B vitamin treatment was also only effective in subjects with high omega-3 status at the beginning of the study. If they had low omega-3 status, the B vitamin supplementation was ineffective.
  • This study has the potential to forever shift the paradigm for preventing cognitive decline in the elderly. Past studies have looked at the effect of B vitamins and omega-3s at reducing cognitive decline separately, and these studies have been inconsistent. If this study is correct, consistent benefits will only be seen when both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids are present at adequate levels.
  • This is a concern because millions of older Americans are deficient in B vitamins or omega-3s or both.
  • How to prevent memory loss? Of course, B vitamins and omega-3s are just part of a holistic approach for preventing cognitive decline. Weight control, exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, socialization, and memory training (mental exercise) are also important if we want to retail our full mental capacity into our 90s and beyond.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • karen klemm

    |

    why can i not make a copy of this e-mail please tell me

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Karen,

      I am not tech savy enough to answer that question, but all of the emails that subscribers like you receive are archived at https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com. Just type a key word from the article title into the search box to pull up the article. From there you can either copy the article or the URL for the article depending on what you want to do with the article. I only ask that you not modify the article in any way before you pass it along.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

Posted July 10, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are You Just Wasting Your Money On Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

supplements for cardiovascular health wast moneyYou’ve seen the headlines. “Recent Study Finds Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.”  You are being told that supplements are of no benefit to you. They are a waste of money. You should follow a healthy diet instead. Is all of this true?

If I were like most bloggers, I would give you a simple yes or no answer that would be only partially correct. Instead, I am going to put the study behind these headlines into perspective. I am going to give you a deeper understanding of supplementation, so you can make better choices for your health.

 Should we use supplements for cardiovascular health?

In today’s article I will give you a brief overview of the subject. Here are the topics I will cover today:

  • Is this fake news?
  • Did the study ask the right questions?
  • Is this a question of “Garbage In – Garbage Out?
  • Reducing Heart Disease Risk. What you need to know.

All these topics are covered in much more detail (with references) in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, which will be published this fall.

 

How Was This Study Done?

supplements for cardiovascular healthThis study (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 71: 2540-2584, 2018 ) was a meta-analysis. Simply put, that means the authors combined the results of many previous studies into a single database to increase the statistical power of their conclusions. This study included 127 randomized control trials published between 2012 and December 2017. These were all studies that included supplementation and looked at cardiovascular end points, cancer end points or overall mortality.

Before looking at the results, it is instructive to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study. Rather than giving you my interpretation, let me summarize what the authors said about strengths and weaknesses of their own study.

The strengths are obvious. Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, but they have their weaknesses. Here is what the authors said about the limitations of their study:

  • “Randomized control trials are of shorter duration, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.”
  • “Dose-response data were not usually available [from the randomized control studies included in their analysis]. However, larger studies would allow the effect of dose to be assessed.”

There are some other limitations of this study, which I will point out below.

Is This Fake News?

supplements for cardiovascular health fake newsWhen I talk about “fake news” I am referring to the headlines, not to the study behind the headlines. The headlines were definitive: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” However, when you read the study the reality is quite different:

  • In contrast to the negative headlines, the study reported:
    • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 20% and overall heart disease risk by 17%.
    • B complex supplements containing folic acid, B6, and B12 decreased stroke risk by 10%.
    • That’s a big deal, but somehow the headlines forgot to mention it.
  • The supplements that had no significant effect on heart disease risk (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) were ones that would not be expected to lower heart disease risk. There was little evidence from previous studies of decreased risk. Furthermore, there is no plausible mechanism for supposing they might decrease heart disease risk.
  • The study did not include vitamin E or omega-3 supplements, which are the ones most likely to prove effective in decreasing heart disease risk when the studies are done properly (see below).

Did The Study Ask The Right Question?

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis were asking whether a supplement decreased heart disease risk or mortality for everyone. Simply put, the studies started with a group of generally healthy Americans and asked whether supplementation had a significant effect on disease risk for everyone in that population.

That is the wrong question. We should not expect supplementation to benefit everyone equally. Instead, we should be asking who is most likely to benefit from supplementation and design our clinical studies to test whether those people benefit from supplementation.

supplements for cardiovascular health diagramI have created the graphic on the right as a guide to help answer the question of “Who is most likely to benefit from supplementation?”. Let me summarize each of the points using folic acid as the example.

 

Poor Diet: It only makes sense that those people who are deficient in folate from foods are the most likely to benefit from folic acid supplementation. Think about it for a minute. Would you really expect people who are already getting plenty of folate from their diet to obtain additional benefits from folic acid supplementation?

The NIH estimates that around 20% of US women of childbearing age are deficient in folic acid. For other segments of our population, dietary folate insufficiency ranges from 5-10%. Yet, most studies of folic acid supplementation lump everyone together – even though 80-95% of the US population is already getting enough folate through foods, food fortification, and supplementation. It is no wonder most studies fail to find a beneficial effect of folic acid supplementation.

The authors of the meta-analysis I discussed above said that the beneficial effects of folic acid they saw might have been influenced by a very large Chinese study, because a much higher percentage of Chinese are deficient in folic acid. They went on to say that the Chinese study needed to be repeated in this country.

In fact, the US study has already been done. A large study called “The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE)” study reported that folic acid supplementation did not reduce heart disease risk in the whole population. However, when the study focused on the subgroup of subjects who were folate-deficient at the beginning of the study, folic acid supplementation significantly decreased their risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death.  This would seem to suggest using supplements for cardiovascular health is a good idea.

Increased Need: There are many factors that increase the need for certain nutrients. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s only focus on medications. Medications that interfere with folic acid metabolism include anticonvulsants, metformin (used to treat diabetes), methotrexate and sulfasalazine (used to treat severe inflammation), birth control pills, and some diuretics. Use of these medications is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine medication use with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial.

Genetic Predisposition: The best known genetic defect affecting folic acid metabolism is MTHFR. MTHFR deficiency does not mean you have a specific need for methylfolate. However, it does increase your need for folic acid. Again, this is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine MTHFR deficiency with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial. I cover this topic in great detail in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”. In the meantime, you might wish to view my video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate.”

Diseases: An underlying disease or predisposition to disease often increases the need for one or more nutrients that help reduce disease risk. The best examples of this are two major studies on the effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in women. Both studies found no effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in the whole population. However, one study reported that vitamin E reduced heart disease risk in the subgroup of women who were post-menopausal (when the risk of heart disease skyrockets). The other study found that vitamin E reduced heart attack risk in the subgroup of women who had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Finally, if you look at the diagram closely, you will notice a red circle in the middle. When two or three of these factors overlap, that is the “sweet spot” where supplementation is almost certain to make a difference and it may be a good idea to use supplements for cardiovascular health.

Is This A Question Of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”?

supplements for cardiovascular health garbage in outUnfortunately, most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” rather than the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question.

In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.

Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.

 

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

 

If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this meta-analysis is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but the analysis did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s.

However, if you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that we know healthy diets can decrease heart disease risk. In the words of the authors: “The recent science-based report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, also concerned with [heart disease] risk reduction, recommended 3 dietary patterns: 1) a healthy American diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and meat, but high in fruits and vegetables; 2) a Mediterranean diet; and 3) a vegetarian diet. These diets, with their accompanying recommendations, continue the move towards more plant-based diets…” I cover the effect of diet on heart disease risk in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” The study behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 127 randomized control trials looking at the effect of supplementation on heart disease risk and mortality.

  • The headlines qualify as “fake news” because:
    • The study found that folic acid decreased stroke and heart disease risk, and B vitamins decreased stroke risk. Somehow the headlines forgot to mention that.
    • The study found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C had no effect on heart disease risk. These are nutrients that were unlikely to decrease heart disease risk to begin with.
    • The study did not include vitamin E and omega-3s. These are nutrients that are likely to decrease heart disease risk when the studies are done properly.
  • The authors of the study stated that a major weakness of their study was that that randomized control studies included in their analysis were short term, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.
  • The study behind the headlines is of little use for you as an individual because it asked the wrong question.
  • Most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” That is the wrong question. Instead we need more clinical studies focused on the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question. I discuss that question in more detail in the article above.
  • In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.
  • Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this study is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B-complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but they did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s in their analysis.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.
  • However, we do know that healthy, plant-based diets can decrease heart disease risk. I cover heart healthy diets in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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