Can Vitamin E Protect You from Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

200249475-001It has been estimated that roughly 5 million people in the United States have some form of dementia. Recent research suggests that vitamin E, a potent antioxidant, may help stave off or slow its progression.

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble micronutrient and is found in nuts and seeds, eggs, green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, and vegetable oils. Vitamin E protects cell membranes from damage by free radicals. One theory posits that age-related changes to the brain result from oxidative damage to cells. It has been suggested that vitamin E could minimize the oxidative stress that leads to age-related brain damage and thus prevent or delay the progression of issues such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other changes in cognition. Vitamin E deficiencies have been found in people with Alzheimer’s as well as in those with mild cognitive decline.

The Brain and Vitamin E
Risk factors for dementia include both those that are changeable and those that are not. Ones we cannot change include our age, gender, and genetic influence. Potentially changeable risk factors include our cardiovascular status and health behaviors. Specifically, the research to date suggests a link between having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and increased risk of dementia. Unfortunately, drugs to treat these conditions do not appear to reduce the risk or slow the progression of dementia.

The good news is that lifestyle strategies that improve overall health can both reduce dementia risk and slow disease progression in those who already have some evidence of cognitive decline. Several studies have found that diets high in fruits and vegetables and fish, including what is commonly referred to as a Mediterranean diet, are associated with reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s, a slower rate of cognitive decline in the elderly, and decreased mortality in those who already have Alzheimer’s. (For related posts, see my previous articles, Omega 3s for Better Mental Health and Could 10 Days on a Mediterranean Diet Improve Your Mood?)

A study published in 2009 examined the effects of taking 2,000 international units of vitamin E with or without an Alzheimer’s drug on 847 people. The researchers found that those who took vitamin E daily—with or without an anti-dementia drug—were 26% less likely to die during the study period (1990 to 2004) than those who did not. Participants who took the drug alone had no additional survival benefit. The researchers concluded that vitamin E plus a cholinesterase inhibitor may be more beneficial than taking either agent alone.

Despite this finding, other studies have shown no definitive benefit from taking vitamin E supplements. This may be due to the amount of damage that has already been done in people with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive decline, or it may be because the versions of vitamin E found in supplements tend to include only one form (alpha-tocopherol) rather than a combination of the eight related congeners, or chemical substances, that fall under the heading of vitamin E. Furthermore, malnutrition has been associated with more rapid decline in people with Alzheimer’s, and thus, supplementation alone may not counteract the effects associated with an inadequate diet.

What Are the Risks?
The authors of the aforementioned study found no increase in mortality from taking high-dose vitamin E, and instead found survival enhanced in those who took the supplement. However, others caution against the use of high doses due to possible side effects. These can include nausea, headache, bleeding, fatigue, and other symptoms. Furthermore, some meta-analyses of studies on the effects of vitamin E in people with heart disease have found an increased risk of mortality in this population. In one meta-analysis, this adverse effect was observed in those who took more than 400 IU of vitamin E daily.

People who take blood thinners should not take vitamin E supplements without talking to a doctor first. If you take any medication, it’s best to check with your doctor to make sure vitamin E supplements won’t interfere.

Recommendations
The bottom line is that unless you have a diagnosed deficiency, a current diagnosis of dementia, or a family history, the best brain-protective strategy is probably to consume foods that are good sources of vitamin E and/or other micronutrients, fiber, and other healthy phytochemicals, and avoid diets known to increase the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Doing so will not only reduce your risk of cognitive decline, but should also improve your mood, level of energy, immune function, and help you to maintain an appropriate weight.

As always, discuss supplements with your health care provider to make sure the ones you take are the best choices and at the right dose for you.

References:

  1. Joshi, Y. B., & Pratico, D. (2012). Vitamin E in aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc., 38(2), 90–97.
  2. Pavlik, VN, Doody, R. S., Rountree, S. D., & Darby, E. J. (2009). Vitamin E Use Is Associated with Improved Survival in an Alzheimer’s Disease Cohort. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord, 28, 536–540.
  3. Science Daily (November 26, 2012). Researchers Discover Gender-Based Differences in Alzheimer’s Disease. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121126110747.htm
  4. Consumerlabs.com: Independent laboratory evaluations of dietary supplements.
  5. WebMD (April 15, 2008). Vitamin E May Up Alzheimer’s Survival. http://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/news/20080414/vitamin-e-may-up-alzheimers-survival

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  • nick

    nick

    March 21st, 2013 at 2:01 PM

    vitamin supplements were a fad I thought. but if they are indeed helpful then why not! I mean I’d rather take vitamin supplements every day rather than depend on drugs with a million side-effects! also, the results seem to be divided right now, we could do with a little more in this area, isn’t it?

  • morgan

    morgan

    March 22nd, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    I know that supplements can be helpful but I have read too much about there then being certain drug interactions and people taking incorrect doses to do this without talking to my doctor.
    If I knew that I had the risk factors and that this would not negatively interact with any other drugs that I am taking I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to try this though.

  • Pria

    Pria

    March 23rd, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    So look at the question like this: since vitamin e deficiencies are found in many patients with Alzheimers do you think that the disease is brought on by these lower levels or that the disease itself could actually be causing the vitamin e levels to plummet in those patients?

  • RD

    RD

    March 25th, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    Never the one to support any ‘supplements’ or any other food additives. If Vitamin E can help against these disorders then why not eat food rich in Vitamin E? What’s with the craze for supplements??

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    March 25th, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    Hi all and thanks for your comments. Many good points made above. I agree that if possible, it’s preferable to get our nutrients from food. For some, this is more feasible than others. And it is absolutely a good idea to be aware of possible interactions with medications. I always encourage people to speak with their doctors about any supplements they are taking or considering taking.

    With regard to exactly why people with Alzheimer’s tend to have lower vitamin E levels, it is unclear whether this is a result of Alzheimer’s or whether the lower levels serve as a trigger of some sort in vulnerable people. Thus, if there is a family history of Alzheimer’s or if the person shows early signs of dementia, it is worth discussing with one’s MD whether vitamin E supplementation is appropriate.

    Finally, a very nice resource on supplements, their potential uses and drug interactions, as well as summaries of the research to date can be found at Consumerlab.com.

    I hope this is helpful. Be well!

  • Garnet R.

    Garnet R.

    March 16th, 2015 at 3:33 PM

    You’re so awesome! I do not suppose I’ve read anything like this before. So nice to discover someone with a few genuine thoughts on this topic. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This web site is something that is needed on the internet, someone with a little originality.

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