Can supplements reduce dementia risk?
In February 2019, a dozen supplement manufacturers received stern warnings from the FDA. Companies were marketing their products as if they were clinically tested drugs. With names like CongniFlex, these vitamin blends were claiming to cure or prevent dementia. Millions of elderly Americans buy so-called memory boosting supplements religiously, hoping to stave off this debilitating illness. In reality, these supplements have never been proven to cure anything. In fact, some of the supplements are causing serious side effects because they can be deadly when mixed with prescription medications. Are there any vitamins that are effective at preventing, curing, or slowing dementia?
What causes dementia?
Rather than being a single disease, the word dementia actually describes a group of diseases related to brain disfunction. Alzheimer’s is one of many types of dementia. The most common symptoms of dementia are memory loss and loss of cognitive abilities. Each type of dementia has a different cause, so it would seem that there would be some vitamin or natural supplement that could address at least one of these causes.
Alzheimer’s and Lewy body dementia are both caused by build ups of protein in the brain. These groups of proteins can form a layer of plaque or even form knots of protein tangles, which inhibit the brain from functioning properly. Vascular dementia happens when the blood vessels that deliver nutrients and oxygen to the body through blood are damaged. Damaged blood vessels can’t deliver enough nutrients to keep the brain in working order.
Frontotemporal dementia happens when nerve cells in the frontal or temporal lobes are damaged. Often times, this damage happens spontaneously, so it is unclear what causes this type of dementia. Of course, an injury could cause this sort of nerve damage, but patients who suffer from frontotemporal dementia do not always have a history of traumatic brain injury.
If there are any vitamins or supplements that can treat or prevent dementia, the supplements would have to target the problems of protein buildup, nerve damage, and blood vessel damage.
Vitamin E and selenium
Science has found a link between oxidation in the brain and Alzheimer’s. Vitamin E and selenium are two natural vitamins that are known for being strong antioxidants. At Harvard Medical School, a study was conducted to see if these vitamins could reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia. The male participants had an average age of 67. They were divided into four groups: those who would take a placebo, those who would take vitamin E, those who would take selenium, and those who take vitamin E and selenium. After five years of taking their prescribed supplements or placebos, the rates of dementia among all four groups were very similar. Less than 5% of the men ended up with dementia and this is about the same as the normal population. This results of this study did not show that these vitamins could stop or slow the dementia process.
Fish oil, particularly omega-3, has been shown to be positive for brain health in general, so many have assumed that it could also help improve dementia. There have been several studies conducted on this, and the results are inconclusive. Some of the studies have focused on people who eat more fish, and others have focused on people who take fish derived substances. In some studies, dementia is reduced. In other studies, there is no change. Scientists have hypothesized that the reason for the discrepancies could be that the study participants have other lifestyle and genetic factors that either predispose them to dementia or prevent them from getting it. Fish oil is a healthy supplement to take, but it is unclear whether it has any impact on dementia.
Ginkgo biloba has long been touted as being effective at improving memory or preventing memory loss. However, the effectiveness of this natural supplement at preventing dementia is not as promising.
A study conducted in 2008 found no evidence that Ginkgo Biloba slows, cures, or prevents any kind of dementia. The study followed two groups of patients. One group followed a ginkgo biloba regimen for a number of years, and the other group took a placebo for several years. The differences in the rate of dementia between the groups were so slight that they were deemed statistically insignificant.
While Ginkgo biloba may prevent memory loss, memory loss is only a symptom of a deeper mechanical problem with dementia. Having a sharper memory won’t prevent protein buildup, blood vessel damage, or nerve damage that affects the brain in dementia.
What has been proven
A 2017 study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine suggests that fighting hypertension, being physically active, and regularly participating in some form of cognitive training are preventive measures for age-related loss of mental ability. There is no conclusive evidence to show that these practices can cure dementia, but they have been statistically shown to, at least marginally, slow any kind of age-related cognitive impairment.
There is no magic potion when it comes to being healthy, and there is still much research to be done on all forms of dementia. It is clear that by getting the necessary nutrient each day, being mindful of blood pressure and other numbers that tell about overall health, and staying physically and mentally active, people can live healthier and longer. It is unclear whether there are any specific supplements that can prevent, slow, or cure dementia.