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Health News Archive 1 - Brain and Alzheimer's
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Long-Term Use of Vitamin E and C Supplements May Help to Maintain Cognitive Function in Women

BACKGROUND: Considerable research indicates that age-related cognitive decline is partly the result of free-radical damage to brain cells. Several studies have suggested that a high intake of antioxidants may slow age- related cognitive decline. One study in particular found that very high- dose vitamin E supplements delayed the progression of Alzheimer's disease.  This study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in June, 2003, was conducted at the Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

RESEARCH: Researchers tested the cognitive function of almost 15,000 women, ages 70 to 79, participating in the Nurses' Health Study. The tests included memory, immediate and delayed recall of lists of words, and tests of verbal fluency. For example, one of the tests asked women to name as many animals as they could in one minute. (The responses ranged from two to 38 animal names.) Test scores were compared with the subjects' use of vitamin E and C supplements.  Information on the use of specific supplements containing vitamins E and C was collected biennially via mailed questionnaires beginning in 1980 from these women. From 1995 to 2000, telephone tests of cognitive function were administered to the women, who were 70-79 years of age at that time.

RESULTS: Women who had been taking both vitamin E and vitamin C supplements for at least 10 years had significantly better cognitive performance than women who had never taken those supplements. The benefits were less consistent among women who had taken vitamin E alone, and no benefits were associated with vitamin C alone.  The analyses also showed a trend of increased benefit with longer duration of supplement use, and was stronger among women with poor dietary intake of vitamin E.

IMPLICATIONS: This study shows that women who have taken vitamin E and vitamin C supplements for at least 10 years maintained better cognitive function in their 70s, compared with women who took only one of the vitamins or none at all.

Grodstein F, Chen J, Willett WC., "High-dose antioxidant supplements and cognitive function in community-dwelling women," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003;77:975-984.

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Vitamin E Delays Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Researchers at a major Chicago, IL, medical center tracked the health of 2889 people, ages 65 to 102, for an average of three years.  The subjects were given four standard tests to assess their cognitive function, including memory.  They also completed a detailed questionnaire about their diets and the supplements they took. 

People who consumed the greatest amount of Vitamin E, from supplements and food, had a 36% reduction in the rate of cognitive decline, compared with people who consumed the least amount of Vitamin E.  Those who consumed the largest amount of Vitamin E from food alone had a 32% reduction in the rate of cognitive decline, compared with those who obtained the least amount of Vitamin E from food.  People consuming the most Vitamin E (from supplements and food) had the mental function of people eight to nine years younger than those who consumed little Vitamin E.

Archives of Neurology, 2002;59:1125-1132.

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Homocysteine Linked to Higher Alzheimer's Risk

An article in the February 2002 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine indicates high levels of the amino acid homocysteine may double the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, researchers report.  In a new study, the risk of Alzheimer's was nearly double in people with high levels of homocysteine. 

Boston University neurologist Sudha Seshadri and colleagues, report that elderly men and women with high levels of homocysteine seem to have an increased risk of Alzheimer's. The study raises the possibility of staving off dementia by consuming more folic acid, vitamins B6, B12, and betaine also known as trimethylglycine which can lower homocysteine levels.

The researchers followed 1,092 people who did not have dementia when they enrolled in the study between 1976 and 1978. Participants had their homocysteine levels measured between 1979 and 1982 and again between 1986 and 1990.  After an average of 8 years of follow-up, 111 participants developed dementia. Alzheimer's was thought to be the cause in 83 cases.

The most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer’s affects about 4 million Americans.  By age 65, about 5% of people are afflicted with Alzheimer’s.  The prevalence rises to about 15% at age 75, and to as high as 45% by age 85, according to some studies.  Alzheimer’s and dementia have a relentlessly downhill course, although there’s a relatively long survival after diagnosis, about seven years. 

People with the highest level of homocysteine were nearly twice as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease as those with the lowest level, the authors report.  The association between homocysteine levels and dementia was still present even after the researchers accounted for various factors that could have affected the results, including age, sex, blood levels of vitamins and the presence of an Alzheimer's-linked gene type.

The study provides "convincing evidence" that high homocysteine levels put the elderly at risk for Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, according to Dr. Joseph Loscalzo of Boston University Medical Center. Since certain B vitamins and other nutrients can reduce homocysteine levels, Loscalzo notes in an accompanying editorial, "It is intriguing to contemplate the possibility that consumption of these vitamins might prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias." This approach must be tested in clinical trials first, however, he notes.

SOURCE: The New England Journal of Medicine 2002;346:466-468,476-483.  

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Green Tea Chemical May Prevent Brain Damage

Chemicals found in green tea and other plants may prevent the brain damage that occurs after strokes and other brain injuries, say researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

"In stroke, as well as other conditions, cells sometimes take an active role in causing their own death," said Dr. Raymond Swanson from UCSF and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "In this case, it is overactivation of a normal DNA repair system, the PARP/PARG system, that paradoxically causes cells to die. By blocking this system we can rescue cells that would otherwise go on to die."

The PARP/PARG system is activated by the release of cell-damaging oxygen radicals, a phenomenon called oxidative stress when cells become overexcited by various toxins, the researchers note.

Swanson and associates tested the effects in the laboratory of two plant-derived chemicals on brain cells under stress--gallotannin and nobotanin B. Gallotannin is found in green tea and other plants. Nobotanin B, a similar chemical, comes from the Brazilian glory bush. Both chemicals block PARG activity.

Blockers of PARP activity have already been used to prevent brain cell death, the authors explain, but as PARG blockers, gallotannin and nobotanin B were 10 to 1,000 times more potent in preventing brain cell death caused by oxygen radicals. And gallotannin was 100 times more effective than antioxidants, chemicals that can soak up the toxic oxygen molecules.

Both gallotannin and nobotanin B also blocked brain cell death from chemicals that normally overexcite the cells, the report indicates.

At the life-saving doses, neither chemical had cell-damaging side effects, according to the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, though gallotannin did cause some ill effects just above its most effective dose.

"The findings confirm that cell death (in our case neural cell death) after oxidative stress is not simply a passive process, but rather involves active participation by the cells themselves," Swanson explained. "In other words, oxidative stress triggers responses in cells which can be deleterious to the cells, and blocking this response can improve cell survival."

"These compounds may have promise as (cell-protecting) agents," the authors conclude.

SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2001;98:12227-12232.

Reprinted with permission of 
Medline plus Health Information: a service of the National Library of Medicine

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Antioxidants May Delay Alzheimer's Disease Onset

June, 2002

Two studies published simultaneously in the June, 2002 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association suggest that diets rich in Antioxidants may delay the onset of memory-robbing Alzheimer's disease.

Compounds called free radicals that are released during normal cell processes can be harmful to body tissues, leading to so-called oxidative damage or stress. Experts have linked oxidative stress to several illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Since antioxidants--including vitamins C and E--can neutralize free radicals, some experts believe these nutrients could help delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

In the first study, lead author Dr. Marianne J. Engelhart of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, reviewed dietary information for 5,395 men and women at least 55 years old who were free of dementia.   After 6 years, 146 people in the group were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the researchers report.

Engelhart's team found that those with the highest intake of vitamin C and vitamin E from food appeared to be the least likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Smokers who consumed the most beta-carotene and flavonoids--two types of antioxidant nutrients--also appeared to cut their Alzheimer's risk.

However, whether the findings reflect a "causal association" between dietary consumption of antioxidants and a reduction in a person's risk of Alzheimer's disease remains to be determined, the authors conclude.

In the second study, lead author Dr. Martha Clare Morris of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago, Illinois, also aimed to identify any relationship between dietary consumption of antioxidants and risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Morris and colleagues studied 815 men and women aged 65 and older. After 3.9 years, 131 were diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

They found that those with the highest dietary intake of vitamin E had the lowest risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. But people who carried a gene known to increase Alzheimer's risk did not see any benefit from vitamin E consumption.

The similarity of the results of the two studies...provides persuasive support for the idea that antioxidant vitamins (in food) may have a beneficial impact on the development of Alzheimer's disease," Foley and White write in an accompanying editorial.

SOURCE: The Journal of the American Medical Association 2002;287:3223-3237, 3261-3263.  

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Eye-vessel Damage Tied to Mental Decline

June, 2002

Middle-aged adults with abnormalities in the tiny blood vessels feeding the eye's retina may be more likely to show signs of mental decline, according to a report in the June issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.  Researchers found that dysfunction in the micro-vessels supplying the brain play an important role in the development of dementia.

The study adds to evidence that preventing or treating disease in major blood vessels could also make a difference in a person's dementia risk. This includes controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, quitting smoking and lowering cholesterol, the study's lead author, Dr. Tien Yin Wong of the National University of Singapore stated.

According to Wong's team, there is evidence linking mental impairment to conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as to smoking--all of which are also risk factors for cerebral microvascular disease, or damage to the tiny vessels supplying the brain.   However, there is less evidence directly tying microvascular disease to mental impairment, the researchers point out.

Abnormalities in the retina's microvasculature can be viewed non-invasively, and it is thought that they can reflect what's going on in the brain's microcirculation. So Wong's team looked at whether this damage--referred to generally as retinopathy--is associated with mental functioning in middle-aged adults.

They found that among the more than 8,700 men and women they studied, scores on tests of memory and other mental abilities were lower for those with retinopathy. The link remained regardless of whether participants had diabetes, high blood pressure or other conditions that could affect the odds of retinopathy or mental dysfunction.

"We found that...signs of retinal microvascular disease are independently associated with lower cognitive function," Wong's team wrote. And in general, Wong said, dysfunction in the cerebral microvasculature is difficult to detect unless a major complication, such as a stroke, signals it.

During the study, participants were examined every 3 years between 1987 and 1998. Their retinal health--assessed when they were between the ages of 51 and 70--was compared with their average scores on mental tests taken 3 years before and 3 years after the retinal exam.

SOURCE: Stroke 2002;33.

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Blueberries May Help Keep Brain Healthy

The chemicals that make blueberries blue -- anthocyanins -- may also keep the brain healthy, according to research presented at the Successful Aging conference in June, 2001.

Other fruits and vegetables have this class of chemicals, but blueberries are the heavy hitters, said Barbara Shukitt-Hale of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. Blackberries and boysenberries also have high levels.

Shukitt-Hale, and her colleague James Joseph, found that old rats whose nutritionally well balanced diet was supplemented with the human equivalent of half cup of blueberries a day for two months, were able to reverse age-related declines in the ability to do a motor task, hanging on to a rotating bar, and a mental task -- learning how to find a perch in small pool of water.

Shukitt-Hale said another class of chemicals in the berries, hydroxycinnamates are also important, and that it is very likely both classes of chemicals work together. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," she said.

Tests on human cells in test tubes found that the two classes of chemicals protected against the damage caused by free radicals, chemicals that are created during such normal processes as digestion. Many scientists regard this so-called oxidative damage as a cause of aging and age-linked damage to the body.

David Morgan, a pharmacologist at the University of South Florida, found that -- when fed blueberries -- mice genetically altered to have symptoms and brain changes similar to those in Alzheimer's disease showed improvement on some learning tasks as compared with mice not given the diet. Moreover, said Shukitt-Hale, an analysis of the brain tissue of these mice showed the structures in the brain involved in learning and memory were better able to communicate with one another.

It's too early to say for sure if blueberries can delay or prevent Alzheimer's disease, said Shukitt-Hale, "but you can't get hurt by trying. And they taste good, too."

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Alpha-lipoic Acid May Contribute to Slowing of Alzheimer's Disease

A very small preliminary study of Alpha-lipoic acid and Alzheimer's disease was reported in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics in 2001.  Nine patients who met the criteria for probable Alzheimer-type dementia consumed 600 mg daily of alpha-lipoic acid for approximately one year. Cognitive performance was tested using two standard clinical tests.

Results: Patients with Alzheimer's disease would normally have experienced a constant decline in test scores over the course of a year. In these nine patients, cognitive function stabilized.

Source: Arch Gerontol and Geriat 2001;32:275-282

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Pycnogenol® helps to prevent Alzheimer's

A study published in Biological Pharmacy Bulletin in June 2000 has revealed that an extract of French maritime pine bark, Pycnogenol®, assists in preventing damage caused by the key protein involved in development of Alzheimer's disease: amyloid beta. Brains of Alzheimer patients typically show deposits of amyloid beta, known to generate oxidative stress causing neuronal loss and vascular damage. The study was performed by Dr. Benjamin Lau and his colleagues at the Department of Biology and Molecular Genetics, School of Medicine, at Loma Linda University, California,

Dr. Lau has discovered that Pycnogenol® helps to prevent vascular damage in the brain by amyloid beta. Blood vessel cells resisted the toxicity of amyloid beta when Pycnogenol® was present. This adds further evidence for a role for Pycnogenol® to prevent ageing related deterioration of the brain.

Neuronal cells are also protected from amyloid beta-induced damage by Pycnogenol®. This has been shown by Dr. Dave Schubert of the Salk Institute (La Jolla, California).

The positive influence of Pycnogenol® on brain function has been demonstrated by Dr. Lau. He retarded age-related deterioration of memory retention and learning ability of old mice by supplementing them with Pycnogenol®. Older mice regularly fed with Pycnogenol® showed markedly improved memory and learning ability in comparison to their littermates without Pycnogenol®. Moreover, older mice treated with Pycnogenol® for two months retained memory levels almost equal to those of young mice. Other researchers who carried out related studies with an extract of Gingko biloba had to feed 10 to 20 times as much to mice.

These studies suggest that supplementation with the antioxidant Pycnogenol® may assist retention of a fully able brain. Regular Pycnogenol® supplementation is also an investment for the future, as it may help to prevent the tragedy of Alzheimer's disease.

Source: Biol. Pharm. Bull. 23(6) 735-737 (2000)

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