Vitamin E may aid those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s

Vitamin E is far from an Alzheimer’s cure, but a new study finds it allowed trial participants to get less help from caregivers and therefore retain more independence longer.

Story Highlights:

  • New study finds patients function more independently
  • Previous research found vitamin E benefits late-stage cases
  • Some suggest more research is needed before all patients take vitamin E

Taking high doses of vitamin E appears to help people in all stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests.

Research a decade ago showed that vitamin E was helpful in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Now a study published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association finds the benefits extend to people with mild to moderate forms of the disease.

“This looks very promising,” said lead researcher Mary Sano, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, both in New York City.

Vitamin E is far from a cure, only somewhat improving functional activities such as planning and organizing, the study found. But it did allow trial participants, who were studied for an average of more than two years, to get less help from caregivers and therefore retain more independence longer.

“It’s not something where you must do this, it’s going to make all the difference,” said Rachelle Doody, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. But Doody, who was not involved in the current study, said she thinks it’s worthwhile for most Alzheimer’s patients, in consultation with their doctor, to take 2,000 IU of vitamin E per day.

That amount far exceeds the government’s recommended dose for healthy adults, which is 22.4 IU or 15 mg per day. There is no indication that high doses of vitamin E help healthy adults, and research shows an increased risk of death with such high doses, particularly for people with congestive heart failure.

That’s why Heather Snyder, Director of Medical & Scientific Relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, thinks that people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s should wait for more research before jumping to add vitamin E to their pill box.

The new study looked at patients in the Veteran’s Affairs system, so they were virtually all male. It’s not yet clear, Snyder said, that the benefits of vitamin E will be true for women as well.

It’s also unclear why high doses of vitamin E would help people with Alzheimer’s, Snyder said, so the Alzheimer’s Association is funding research to uncover a possible mechanism.

Vitamin E is a so-called antioxidant, meaning it combats the damage that oxygen does to cells. It also stabilizes cell membranes. Perhaps, Doody said, at very high doses, enough vitamin E reaches the brain to protect against the brain cell death that characterizes Alzheimer’s.

Doody, who has done her own research into Alzheimer’s and vitamin E, believes the vitamin is safe and life-extending for people with the memory disease.

The new study also examined a drug called memantine, which is already used to treat advanced Alzheimer’s, but found no benefit to mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s patients from the drug alone or in connection with high doses of vitamin E.

All of the 600 patients in the trial were also prescribed the standard-of-care drugs, called cholinesterase inhibitors, although Sano said she thinks vitamin E will also benefit patients who are not taking those drugs.


Karen Weintraub, Special for USA TODAY