Vitamin B May Help Prevent Mental Decline in Elderly

Taking a Very High Daily Dose of Vitamin B May Slow the Rate of Brain Atrophy

Medically Reviewed by Sheena Meredith, MD on September 08, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 9, 2010 -- Elderly people with mild memory problems may benefit from taking very high daily doses of vitamin B to slow the rate of brain shrinkage, say researchers.

A University of Oxford study found that taking vitamin B tablets every day can reduce the rate of brain atrophy in older people with mild cognitive impairment by as much as half.

Around one in five people over the age of 70 in the U.S. have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), in which they experience problems with memory, language, or other mental functions. Although the symptoms are not serious enough to interfere significantly with their daily lives, around half will go on to develop dementia, mainly Alzheimer’s disease, within five years of diagnosis.

Vitamin B

Some B vitamins -- folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 -- control levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood, and high levels of homocysteine are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. So researchers from the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageingfollowed 168 volunteers with mild memory problems. Half were given a proprietary tablet called TrioBePlus, which contained high doses of vitamin B each day for two years, while the remainder took a placebo.

The tablets used were nothing like the ones you might buy in a supermarket or pharmacy; they are very high doses.

The researchers found that, on average, the brains of those taking the folic acid, vitamin B6, and B12 tablet shrank at a rate of 0.76% a year, while the brains of the group taking the placebo shrank at a rate of 1.08%.

People with the highest levels of homocysteine benefited most, showing a rate of brain shrinkage that was half of those taking the placebo. Even though the study was designed to measure the rate of brain atrophy, a strong association was observed between atrophy rate and retention of mental ability.

Delaying Alzheimer’s

The team says more trials should be carried out to see if vitamin treatment could help people at risk of Alzheimer’s.

Lead researcher David Smith of Oxford University’s department of pharmacology says in a statement: “It is our hope that this simple and safe treatment will delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease in many people who suffer from mild memory problems. Today there are about 1.5 million elderly in [the] UK, five million in [the] USA and 14 million in Europe with such memory problems."

Smith describes the results as “promising,” but cautions: “I wouldn’t yet recommend that anyone getting a bit older and beginning to be worried about memory lapses should rush out and buy vitamin B supplements without seeing a doctor.”

Alzheimer’s Research Trust: “Important Results”

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, which co-funded the study, says in a statement: “These are very important results, with B vitamins now showing a prospect of protecting some people from Alzheimer’s in old age. The strong findings must inspire an expanded trial to follow people expected to develop Alzheimer’s, and we hope for further success.

“We desperately need to support research into dementia, to help avoid the massive increases of people living with the condition as the population ages. Research is the only answer to what remains the greatest medical challenge of our time.”

The research is published in the latest edition of the open access journal PLoS ONE.