Vitamin E research and diseases of aging

A major goal of vitamin E research is to establish a role for this antioxidant in the prevention of diseases of aging. For many diseases of the aging brain, antioxidant therapy is the best thing we have going. Diseases like Parkinson's disease (PD) and Alzheimer's disease (AD) are some of the most horrifying, and poorly understood diseases you can find. While these are diseases of the aging brain, many elderly people exerience debilitating cognitive decline without a specific disease pathology.

One fact from the vitamin E research links most neurodegenerative symptoms together: they are characterized by high levels of oxidative stress, something vitamin E is known to combat.

The brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. It uses more oxygen than other parts of the body, hence it makes more mistakes in respiration and spills out more nasty free radicals than anywhere else. It also has less in the way of antioxidant enzyme defenses to clean up the mess. Finally, the brain is loaded with juicy lipids that make easy targets for free radical damage. As the premier lipid-based antioxidant, vitamin E works to reduce oxidative stress.

Consider this result from Indiana University. Levels of various antioxidants (Vitamins E, C, A, selenium, and carotenoids) were measured and correlated with memory test performance in 4809 elderly subjects. After factoring out age, race, education, income, etc. the only consistent correlation with decreased memory performance was decreased serum vitamin E levels (1).

This finding was echoed by a study of elderly Japanese-American men in Hawaii. Vitamin E and C supplementation were found to correlate with significant protection from various forms of dementia and cognitive decline (2).

But does vitamin E supplementation prevent Alzheimer's disease? The results here are decidedly mixed. Various cell culture and animal models suggest a strong role of vitamin E in preventing AD. And one study showed that vitamin E supplementation significantly slowed AD progression. But other studies have been less positive, and the situation with Parkinson's disease is even less clear (3).

So at the bottom line, does vitamin E supplementation give antioxidant therapy and help your brain deal with oxidative stress? In all likelihood it does. Does it conclusively prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases? Maybe so, maybe not. Regardless, if I had a grandfather who might be heading down this road, I'd have him on supplemental vitamin E among other lipophilic antioxidants. Years of vitamin E research have provided a solid scientific rationale for taking this preventative action. Data collection in human subjects has just been a little too noisy so far to see the smoking gun.

Further information on vitamin E research

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1. Perkins, AJ, Hendrie, HC, Callahan, CM, et al. "Association of antioxidants with memory in a multiethnic elderly sample using the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey." Am. J. Epidemiology, 150 (1999) 37-44.

2. Masaki, KH, Losonczy, KG, Izmirlian, G, et al. "Assoication of vitamin E and C supplement use with cognitive function and dementia in elderly men." Neurology, 54 (2000) 1265-72.

3. Ricciarelli, R, Argellati, F, Pronzato, MA, Domenicotti, C. "Vitamin E and neurodegenerative diseases." Mol. Aspects Med. 28 (2007) 591-606.