The New Year started on a positive note for those interested in natural medicine, when the medical journal, JAMA, published a study that actually had something positive to say about vitamins. A two-year clinical trial assessed the effectiveness of vitamin E on moderately severe Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients. It also tested a drug for dementia called memantine (an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor), as well as a combination of the drug and vitamin, or placebo. Of the four groups, the only one that had any slowing of the progression of dementia was the group taking vitamin E-only. They took 2,000 IU alpha-tocopherol for two years, and it appeared to delay Alzheimer’s progression by about six months.
The good news is that we saw positive news about a nutritional supplement. Yet it’s still a little frustrating that research tends to look at just a single, isolated nutrient. Most nutrition-savvy practitioners would never expect vitamin E to be the silver bullet for curing AD. Most of us believe that the real key to prevention includes a combination of lifestyle habits, exercise, essential fatty acids, low-sugar diet, and a handful of beneficial nutrients.
The other cause for frustration is that nutrients aren’t drugs, and they don’t neatly fit into the pharmaceutical-style studies, which are designed to measure the effect of one solitary treatment. It is far more complicated to test a combination of lifestyle factors and supplements in a study and end up with clear results. We need to develop a new research style that can effectively evaluate how diet and lifestyle prevent disease.
The most interesting part of this published study is that the media glossed over the fact that the FDA-approved drug didn’t work! As far as I know, there wasn’t a headline proclaiming “Alzheimer’s Drug Fails in Clinical Trial.” Isn’t that big news? If the vitamin E had no effect, I believe that the headlines would have been “Vitamin E does not Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease”. While the media mentioned the fact that the drug group didn’t show improvement in symptoms, it was only a minor part of the story.
It will be very exciting if the positive outcome of this study leads researchers to add vitamin E to a comprehensive program that helps prevent AD. We already know about many other nutrients that have a positive effect, such as B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. We now need a well-designed clinical trial to test the effects of a smart preventative program.
JAMA. 2014 Jan 1;311(1):33-44.