Alzheimer's disease is possibly the most serious medical condition facing our country today. It is one of the leading causes of death and we have no effective medications. Therefore, it seems that prevention would be the best approach to take for this debilitating illness. Fortunately vitamin D may play an important role in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's disease was first described in 1906 by the German physician Alois Alzheimer. At that time, this form of dementia was quite rare, probably because most people did not live long enough to exhibit the symptoms.
Over the past 20 years however the incidence of Alzheimer's disease has been steadily increasing. Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can include increasing confusion, irritability, changes in mood, difficulty with communication as well as significant memory loss.
There was no known therapy for Alzheimer's disease in 1906 and unfortunately in 2014, therapeutic options are very limited. Only two types of drugs (cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine) have been shown to be effective in slowing the progress of this disease. However, their effectiveness is quite limited and does little to change the ultimate outcome.
Although there are many theories as to the cause of Alzheimer's disease, the inciting event is still undefined. However, we do know that lifestyle plays an important role in the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease as well as its progression.
Those with multiple medical problems tend to be at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease as well as a greater risk of rapid progression.
Lifestyle choices associated with good health are also associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's disease and a slower progression. One of these lifestyle choices may be vitamin D.
Vitamin D is used by every cell in the body. Brain cells, especially those involved in Alzheimer's disease, express a large number of vitamin D receptor proteins. Obviously, vitamin D is very important to these cells.
Vitamin D reduces inflammation in the brain -- an important pathophysiologic feature of Alzheimer's disease. It also accelerates the destruction of the beta-amyloid protein that is believed to contribute to the cell death associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Over 1 billion people, worldwide, are frankly deficient in vitamin D. At least an additional billion may have very low levels of vitamin D. Not by coincidence, vitamin D deficiency exists in 70-90 percent of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Medical studies have demonstrated that increased vitamin D levels either through sun exposure or supplementation improves cognitive function in the elderly. These positive results have been seen in those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease as well as those who do not have this illness.
The benefits of vitamin D supplementation may appear in four weeks resulting in enhanced processing speed as well as cognitive abilities. Indeed, one recent medical trial demonstrated that taking vitamin D and the Alzheimer's medication memantine resulted in better outcomes than either memantine or vitamin D alone.
Vitamin D supplementation is a simple and effective way of treating and preventing Alzheimer's disease and may be the best option at this time.
• Patrick B. Massey, MD, Ph.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.