Acting to avoid Alzheimer’s

Doses of vitamins C and E may help prevent the disease
Friday, January 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:48 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Penny Braun lost her mother to Alzheimer’s in 1995, and the experience acted as a catalyst for Braun’s decision to help others who have to deal with the disease.

As executive director of the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Braun several years ago heard about taking vitamins C and E as a hedge against the disease and decided to begin the regimen herself. At 62, she’s closing in on the age at which the disease often begins showing up.

A study released earlier this week by a researcher at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore lends credence to the value of using antioxidants such as vitamins E and C to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The study of 4,740 Utah residents found that people taking the vitamins at the start of the study were 78 percent less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and those who took the vitamins were 64 percent less likely to have developed the disease four years after the study began.

Braun, who has been taking 1,000 milligrams of both vitamin E and vitamin C for five years, said she wasn’t surprised at the results. “Both vitamins E and C are antioxidants,” she said. “It’s been known for years that they’re good for brains.” Alzheimer’s is a disease that gradually kills brain cells over a period from three to 20 years. The disease starts with memory loss and the loss of thinking skills, but as time progresses the other cells of the brain die. Eventually the person needs complete care.

Antioxidants are thought to absorb free radicals, a byproduct of normal cell functions. Normally, cells can defend themselves against free radicals with antioxidants, but as defenses decline over time, the brain cell damage from free radicals may be associated with Alzheimer’s.

“There is a correlation between taking antioxidants and a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s,” said Katie Dunne, a community development specialist at the local Alzheimer’s chapter, “but at this point we have no studies that show a direct cause and effect between taking antioxidants and a prevention or a cure in the disease.”

The study has led to an influx of calls to the organization nationwide, a spokesman for the national office of the Alzheimer’s Association said.

“We’re not going to give a blanket recommendation,” said Bill Thies, vice president for medical and scientific affairs for the national Alzheimer’s Association.

Thies warns that the Hopkins’ study was not a clinical trial and strictly an observational study, and that patients should always talk to their doctors before beginning a new drug regimen for fear of an interaction.

Thies added that clinical tests on vitamins E and C for Alzheimer’s are under way and said that data should be available in the next six to eight months.

“Anything in the right direction is exciting,” Braun said. “It’s investing current dollars for future gains.”

Organizations such as the National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Aging are also investing in Alzheimer’s research. University of Missouri biochemistry professor Dr. Grace Sun is conducting research on a five-year, $5 million grant from the two organizations. “We are looking at signaling pathways in cells in brains and trying to see what’s wrong with them,” Sun said.

While science works on finding a cure, 108,000 Missourians are affected by the disease. By 2040, an estimated 14 million to 16 million Americans are expected to have the disease.

The Mid-Missouri Chapter of Alzheimer’s Association coordinates 32 Alzheimer’s support groups in 29 counties.

“We’re seeing more and more people coming in,” said Janet Hart, a community development specialist at the local chapter. “It’s helpful people are catching it early; they’re more likely to seek out help for themselves.”

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