Omega-3 and B vitamins cut dementia brain shrinkage by 73%

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Brain shrinkage, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s, starts for many from the age of 50. But can it be prevented? Researchers at Oxford University gave 168 people over 70 with the first signs of memory loss either high dose B vitamins or dummy pills and monitored shrinkage with advanced brain scans over a two year period.

About half of people 70+ have raised blood homocysteine levels, a test which indicates increased need for B vitamins. In this study those with raised homocysteine levels given B vitamins reduced their rate of brain shrinkage by more than half (53%) compared to those given placebos. That alone is an astonishing result, and the first strong evidence of a disease-modifying treatment.

But the researchers wondered whether a person’s omega-3 status, rich in oily fish, might make a difference. The brain is 60% fat and brain cells are literally built out of essential fats and phospholipids found in fish and eggs. B vitamins are needed to incorporate these essential fats into the brain so, they thought, a person’s omega-3 levels might make a difference.

So they split the group into those with high, medium or low levels of omega-3. For those with low levels of omega 3 the B vitamins made no difference to the rate of brain shrinkage, but for those with high levels of omega-3, brain shrinkage reduced by 40%. However, in those with high levels of homocysteine, the indicator of B vitamin deficiency, the rate of brain shrinkage was an astounding 73% less. “This is a very encouraging result.” “It means that something so simple as keeping your omega-3 levels high and supplementing B vitamins if you are at risk, with a high homocysteine level, could dramatically reduce a person’s risk.” said Professor David Smith from Oxford University. “We should be screening people for the early signs of cognitive impairment and then testing their homocysteine and omega-3 status.”

In Sweden people over age 50 are routinely screened for homocysteine, in much the way GPs screen for cholesterol in the UK. Those with high levels are prescribed B vitamins.

This study adds to a growing body of evidence that Alzheimer’s is largely a preventable disease. At least half the risk for Alzheimer’s is preventable, while only 1% of cases are caused by genes. We should be educating people about prevention steps and screening early for the first signs of cognitive changes. Less than 0.1% of the UK dementia research funding is spent on prevention. It should be at least 50%.”

Food for the Brain offers a free Cognitive Function Test online at Two hundred thousand people have now taken the test, which not only gives the earliest indication of your memory status but tells you what to do about it. Increasing omegas from fish, nuts and seeds and testing for homocysteine, and supplementing B vitamins if needed, are two of six prevention steps. The best foods for omega-3 are oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines and walnuts, chia and flax seeds.

The charity hopes to reach a million people, and have just launched an educational video called ‘Alzheimer’s prevention is better than drugs’ to encourage those at risk to take positive steps to prevent this terrible disease.

This study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition today Ref. F Jerneren, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 15, 2015