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posted: 6/24/2013 5:00 AM

Could nutrition play a role in Alzheimer's disease?

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Is it possible that one of the most serious medical conditions of our age, Alzheimer's disease may be the result of chronic nutritional deficiencies? A number of years ago we discovered some very serious illnesses were correctable through proper nutrition. Among these are: scurvy, a serious lack of collagen production as a result of a deficiency in vitamin C; beriberi, a form of congestive heart failure related to a deficiency of vitamin B1; and rickets, a bone-wasting disease in children caused by a deficiency of vitamin D.

There is increasing research to suggest that the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can improve with specific nutritional interventions. A recent early study demonstrated that a fat, phosphatidylserine, improves memory and cognition in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.

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Years ago Alzheimer's disease was a very rare diagnosis, today it is the most common form of dementia. The main known risk factors for Alzheimer's disease are older age, specific genes, chronic illnesses and unhealthy lifestyles.

Although the risk of developing Alzheimer's is relatively low, after the age of 65 the risk doubles every five years. People are living longer and the medical and societal costs resulting from Alzheimer's disease has become a quite sobering statistic. It has been estimated that by 2050, approximately 1 in 85 people will have Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately there are no medications that seem to have any lasting benefit and there does not seem to be any breakthrough medications on the horizon.

Alzheimer's disease is the result of brain cells dying. Although there are many theories as to why the cells are dying, too many to review in any detail here, good nutrition seems too important for reducing the memory related symptoms.

Phosphatidylserine seems to have significant benefits. It is an important fat found in great quantity in nerve tissue, especially the brain. Previous studies have shown that the addition of phosphatidylserine to the diet can enhance brain function. These studies used phosphatidylserine derived from cow brains and fears about mad cow disease limited further research. A recent study published in the medical journal, Clinical Interventions in Aging, used phosphatidylserine derived from soybeans.

In this study, 30 participants with mild to moderate dementia received 300 mg of phosphatidylserine every day for 12 weeks. Measurements of memory and cognition were done at the beginning, after six weeks and at the end of the study. The improvements in memory and cognition are highly significant. The participants were tested on recall, memory recognition, executive functions, focused attention, sustained attention as well as short-term memory. In all parameters, there were significant improvements both at six and 12 weeks.

For years, it is been my contention that Alzheimer's disease may be the end result of years of nutritional insufficiencies. Focused dietary supplements and nutrition could have a positive effect in both treatment and prevention. The study demonstrated the effectiveness and safety of a simple dietary supplement, phosphatidylserine, on memory and cognition. I think it's definitely worth further clinical trials.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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