The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss

The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss.jpeg

By our seventies, one in five of us will suffer from cognitive impairment. Within five years, half of those cognitively impaired will progress to dementia and death. The earlier we can slow or stop this process, the better.

Although an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease is unavailable, interventions just to control risk factors could prevent millions of cases. An immense effort has been spent on identifying such risk factors for Alzheimer's and developing treatments to reduce them.

In 1990, a small study of 22 Alzheimer's patients reported high concentrations of homocysteine in their blood. The homocysteine story goes back to 1969 when a Harvard pathologist reported two cases of children, one dating back to 1933, whose brains had turned to mush. They both suffered from extremely rare genetic mutations that led to abnormally high levels of homocysteine in their bodies. Is it possible, he asked, that homocysteine could cause brain damage even in people without genetic defects?

Here we are in the 21st century, and homocysteine is considered "a strong, independent risk factor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease." Having a blood level over 14 (µmol/L) may double our risk. In the Framingham Study, researchers estimate that as many as one in six Alzheimer's cases may be attributable to elevated homocysteine in the blood, which is now thought to play a role in brain damage and cognitive and memory decline. Our body can detoxify homocysteine, though, using three vitamins: folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. So why don't we put them to the test? No matter how many studies find an association between high homocysteinea and cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease, a cause-and-effect role can only be confirmed by interventional studies.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Vitamin supplementation did not seem to work, but the studies were tracking neuropsychological assessments, which are more subjective compared to structural neuroimaging--that is, actually seeing what's happening to the brain. A double-blind randomized controlled trial found that homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins can slow the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in people with mild cognitive impairment. As we age, our brains slowly atrophy, but the shrinking is much accelerated in patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. An intermediate rate of shrinkage is found in people with mild cognitive impairment. The thinking is if we could slow the rate of brain loss, we may be able to slow the conversion to Alzheimer's disease. Researchers tried giving people B vitamins for two years and found it markedly slowed the rate of brain shrinkage. The rate of atrophy in those with high homocysteine levels was cut in half. A simple, safe treatment can slow the accelerated rate of brain loss.

A follow-up study went further by demonstrating that B-vitamin treatment reduces, by as much as seven-fold, the brain atrophy in the regions specifically vulnerable to the Alzheimer's disease process. You can see the amount of brain atrophy over a two-year period in the placebo group versus the B-vitamin group in my Preventing Brain Loss with B Vitamins? video.

The beneficial effect of B vitamins was confined to those with high homocysteine, indicating a relative deficiency in one of those three vitamins. Wouldn't it be better to not become deficient in the first place? Most people get enough B12 and B6. The reason these folks were stuck at a homocysteine of 11 µmoles per liter is that they probably weren't getting enough folate, which is found concentrated in beans and greens. Ninety-six percent of Americans don't even make the minimum recommended amount of dark green leafy vegetables, which is the same pitiful number who don't eat the minimum recommendation for beans.

If we put people on a healthy diet--a plant-based diet--we can drop their homocysteine levels by 20% in just one week, from around 11 mmoles per liter down to 9 mmoles per liter. The fact that they showed rapid and significant homocysteine lowering without any pills or supplements implies that multiple mechanisms may have been at work. The researchers suggest it may be because of the fiber. Every gram of daily fiber consumption may increase folate levels in the blood nearly 2%, perhaps by boosting vitamin production in the colon by all our friendly gut bacteria. It also could be from the decreased methionine intake.

Methionine is where homocysteine comes from. Homocysteine is a breakdown product of methionine, which comes mostly from animal protein. If we give someone bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steak for dinner, we can get spikes of homocysteine levels in the blood. Thus, decreased methionine intake on a plant-based diet may be another factor contributing to lower, safer homocysteine levels.

The irony is that those who eat plant-based diets long-term, not just at a health spa for a week, have terrible homocysteine levels. Meat-eaters are up at 11 µmoles per liter, but vegetarians at nearly 14 µmoles per liter and vegans at 16 µmoles per liter. Why? The vegetarians and vegans were getting more fiber and folate, but not enough vitamin B12. Most vegans were at risk for suffering from hyperhomocysteinaemia (too much homocysteine in the blood) because most vegans in the study were not supplementing with vitamin B12 or eating vitamin B12-fortified foods, which is critical for anyone eating a plant-based diet. If you take vegans and give them B12, their homocysteine levels can drop down below 5. Why not down to just 11? The reason meat-eaters were stuck up at 11 is presumably because they weren't getting enough folate. Once vegans got enough B12, they could finally fully exploit the benefits of their plant-based diets and come out with the lowest levels of all.

This is very similar to the findings in my video Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health.

For more details on ensuring a regular reliable source of vitamin B12:

There are more benefits to lowering your methionine intake. Check out Methionine Restriction as a Life Extension Strategy and Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction.

For more on brain health in general, see these videos:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss

The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss.jpeg

By our seventies, one in five of us will suffer from cognitive impairment. Within five years, half of those cognitively impaired will progress to dementia and death. The earlier we can slow or stop this process, the better.

Although an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease is unavailable, interventions just to control risk factors could prevent millions of cases. An immense effort has been spent on identifying such risk factors for Alzheimer's and developing treatments to reduce them.

In 1990, a small study of 22 Alzheimer's patients reported high concentrations of homocysteine in their blood. The homocysteine story goes back to 1969 when a Harvard pathologist reported two cases of children, one dating back to 1933, whose brains had turned to mush. They both suffered from extremely rare genetic mutations that led to abnormally high levels of homocysteine in their bodies. Is it possible, he asked, that homocysteine could cause brain damage even in people without genetic defects?

Here we are in the 21st century, and homocysteine is considered "a strong, independent risk factor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease." Having a blood level over 14 (µmol/L) may double our risk. In the Framingham Study, researchers estimate that as many as one in six Alzheimer's cases may be attributable to elevated homocysteine in the blood, which is now thought to play a role in brain damage and cognitive and memory decline. Our body can detoxify homocysteine, though, using three vitamins: folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. So why don't we put them to the test? No matter how many studies find an association between high homocysteinea and cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease, a cause-and-effect role can only be confirmed by interventional studies.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Vitamin supplementation did not seem to work, but the studies were tracking neuropsychological assessments, which are more subjective compared to structural neuroimaging--that is, actually seeing what's happening to the brain. A double-blind randomized controlled trial found that homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins can slow the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in people with mild cognitive impairment. As we age, our brains slowly atrophy, but the shrinking is much accelerated in patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. An intermediate rate of shrinkage is found in people with mild cognitive impairment. The thinking is if we could slow the rate of brain loss, we may be able to slow the conversion to Alzheimer's disease. Researchers tried giving people B vitamins for two years and found it markedly slowed the rate of brain shrinkage. The rate of atrophy in those with high homocysteine levels was cut in half. A simple, safe treatment can slow the accelerated rate of brain loss.

A follow-up study went further by demonstrating that B-vitamin treatment reduces, by as much as seven-fold, the brain atrophy in the regions specifically vulnerable to the Alzheimer's disease process. You can see the amount of brain atrophy over a two-year period in the placebo group versus the B-vitamin group in my Preventing Brain Loss with B Vitamins? video.

The beneficial effect of B vitamins was confined to those with high homocysteine, indicating a relative deficiency in one of those three vitamins. Wouldn't it be better to not become deficient in the first place? Most people get enough B12 and B6. The reason these folks were stuck at a homocysteine of 11 µmoles per liter is that they probably weren't getting enough folate, which is found concentrated in beans and greens. Ninety-six percent of Americans don't even make the minimum recommended amount of dark green leafy vegetables, which is the same pitiful number who don't eat the minimum recommendation for beans.

If we put people on a healthy diet--a plant-based diet--we can drop their homocysteine levels by 20% in just one week, from around 11 mmoles per liter down to 9 mmoles per liter. The fact that they showed rapid and significant homocysteine lowering without any pills or supplements implies that multiple mechanisms may have been at work. The researchers suggest it may be because of the fiber. Every gram of daily fiber consumption may increase folate levels in the blood nearly 2%, perhaps by boosting vitamin production in the colon by all our friendly gut bacteria. It also could be from the decreased methionine intake.

Methionine is where homocysteine comes from. Homocysteine is a breakdown product of methionine, which comes mostly from animal protein. If we give someone bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steak for dinner, we can get spikes of homocysteine levels in the blood. Thus, decreased methionine intake on a plant-based diet may be another factor contributing to lower, safer homocysteine levels.

The irony is that those who eat plant-based diets long-term, not just at a health spa for a week, have terrible homocysteine levels. Meat-eaters are up at 11 µmoles per liter, but vegetarians at nearly 14 µmoles per liter and vegans at 16 µmoles per liter. Why? The vegetarians and vegans were getting more fiber and folate, but not enough vitamin B12. Most vegans were at risk for suffering from hyperhomocysteinaemia (too much homocysteine in the blood) because most vegans in the study were not supplementing with vitamin B12 or eating vitamin B12-fortified foods, which is critical for anyone eating a plant-based diet. If you take vegans and give them B12, their homocysteine levels can drop down below 5. Why not down to just 11? The reason meat-eaters were stuck up at 11 is presumably because they weren't getting enough folate. Once vegans got enough B12, they could finally fully exploit the benefits of their plant-based diets and come out with the lowest levels of all.

This is very similar to the findings in my video Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health.

For more details on ensuring a regular reliable source of vitamin B12:

There are more benefits to lowering your methionine intake. Check out Methionine Restriction as a Life Extension Strategy and Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction.

For more on brain health in general, see these videos:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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Why Don’t More Doctors Practice Prevention?

NF-Mar22 Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention.jpeg

Why don't more doctors practice preventive cardiology? Time availability is a reason frequently cited by physicians, but if you probe a little deeper, the number one reason given was their perception that patients fear being deprived of all the junk they're eating. Can you imagine a doctor saying, "I'd like to tell my patients to stop smoking, but I know how much they love it"?

Changes in diet to reduce cholesterol levels are often assumed to result in reductions in quality of life. Do we get to live longer or is it just going to feel longer? Contrary to popular belief, studies have found no apparent reduction, but rather an improvement in some measures of quality of life and patient satisfaction using nutrition therapy as opposed to drugs for high cholesterol. Whereas people taking cholesterol-lowering drugs don't feel any different, studies have found that those using dietary changes reported significantly better health and satisfaction, and better life in general. More positive feelings and fewer negative. In the Family Heart Study, for example, those placed on a cholesterol lowering diet showed significantly greater improvements in depression as well as a reduction in aggressive hostility.

Another barrier to preventive cardiology is that doctors don't realize how powerful dietary changes can be. The importance of diet for patients' health remains underestimated by doctors. Even the new drug-centered cholesterol guidelines emphasize that lifestyle modification should be the foundation for the reduction for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk. Despite this, more than half of physicians may skip over lifestyle change completely and jump straight to their prescription pad doubting that cholesterol goals can be reached with lifestyle changes alone.

According to the Director of the famous Framingham Heart Study (highlighted in my video, Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention), the best way to manage coronary artery disease is to lower patients' LDL cholesterol and other atherosclerosis-causing particles. "You can achieve this with diet plus drugs, but if you can do it with a vegetarian diet, it works even better." In the Framingham Heart Study, those running in the Boston Marathon achieved the goal of getting their total to good cholesterol ratio under four, but the vegetarians did even better.

And if you go all out, putting people on a very high fiber, whole-food vegetable, fruit, and nut diet, you can get a 25 percent drop in the bad to good cholesterol ratio within one week and a 33 percent drop in LDL. That's the cholesterol-reduction equivalent to a therapeutic dose of a cholesterol-lowering statin drug.

Dr. Ornish talks about how diet can be more sustainable than drugs, since compliance is more based on love-of-life rather than fear-of-death. See his editorial in Convergence of Evidence.

More on how lifestyle medicine is not only safer, and cheaper, but more effective:

Many physicians just weren't taught the power of diet:

But there have been cases of the medical profession actively seeking to limit further nutrition training. See my series about a bill in California:

Why not take drugs every day for the rest of our lives instead of using dietary change? That's the question I ask in my video Fast Food: Do You Want Fries With That Lipitor? Plus, drugs may not be effective as we think. Check out: Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure. Not only is that not treating the root cause, but there are potentially serious drug side-effects. See, for example, Statin Muscle Toxicity and Statin Cholesterol Drugs and Invasive Breast Cancer.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Williams / Flickr

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Why Some Dietary Cholesterol Studies Fail to Show Harm

NF-Oct29 when low risks means high risk  .jpg

How else can we make decisions for ourselves and our families but by the best available balance of evidence? The latest meta-analysis, pooling data from more than a dozen studies involving more than 300,000 people, indicates that there is a dose dependent association between egg consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But that doesn't mean every individual study showed evidence of harm. Even though the totality of evidence points to harm, the egg industry can cherry-pick studies that show no apparent effects.

If eggs are harmful, why don't all of the studies on heart disease and egg consumption show significant harm? It may have to do with Geoffrey Rose's "sick population" concept. If an entire population is sick, then the range of "health" may not be sufficiently broad to establish a significant association. Rose's paper is one of the most famous papers ever written in preventive medicine and should be required reading for all medical students.

Imagine if everyone smoked 20 cigarettes a day. If everybody smoked, then clinical studies, case-control studies, and cohort studies would all lead us to conclude that lung cancer was a genetic disease; and in one sense that would be true. Some smokers get cancer; others lifelong smokers never do. But if everybody smoked, we'd never know that smoking was a risk factor. Thankfully, in the case of cigarettes and lung cancer, it so happened that the original study populations contained about equal numbers of smokers and non-smokers. In such a situation, studies are able to identify smoking as the main risk factor.

But take cholesterol. In the video, When Low Risk Means High Risk, you can see the cholesterol levels of the people with and without heart disease in the famous Framingham Heart Study. There's hardly any difference because practically everybody's cholesterol was too high; it's like everyone was a smoker. The painful truth is that even someone at "low risk" for heart disease is likely to die of heart disease. Everyone who eats the standard Western diet is, in fact, a high-risk individual when it comes to heart disease.

In a sick population like ours where nearly everyone is eating lots of saturated fat and cholesterol, adding some more saturated fat and cholesterol in the form of eggs may just take us from one sorry state--probably dying from heart disease--to another sorry state--still probably dying from heart disease.

So when the current federal guidelines say we need to particularly restrict dietary cholesterol if we're at high risk for heart disease, we need to realize that nearly all Americans that live past middle age are at high risk of dying from heart disease--it's our #1 cause of death. As stroke specialist David Spence and colleagues put it, "A 20-year old man might feel safe smoking and eating egg yolks because his heart attack is 45 years or so in the future. But why would he want to accelerate the progression of his atherosclerotic plaque and bring it on sooner? Stopping egg yolks after the heart attack would be like quitting smoking after lung cancer is diagnosed."

There may in fact be a plateau of risk for smoking, too. Whether we smoke for 25 years or 35 years, our risk for lung cancer may be the same--really high, but about the same. The tobacco industry could truthfully tell someone who's smoked for most of their lives that, don't worry, you can keep smoking and your risk of lung cancer won't go up (conveniently failing to mention that if you're already at high risk and you quit completely, your risk would drop dramatically). It's like if you took a raging drunk and had them take a shot of whiskey. In someone who's hammered, it might not make much difference, but to a teetotaler, a couple shots could have quite an effect. So it's like the alcohol industry with a group of drunks saying, see, couple shots, no big deal. But that doesn't mean it's not better to be sober.

Instead of going from high risk to high risk, better to go to low risk or no risk.

This reminds me of what the beef industry tried to pull. See BOLD Indeed: Beef Lowers Cholesterol?

Is our diet really that bad? See Nation's Diet in Crisis.

Here are a few other important egg industry videos:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Keoni Cabral / Flickr

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Dr. Greger’s 2015 Live Year-in-Review Presentation

Food as Medicine

View my new live presentation here: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet

Every year I scour the world's scholarly literature on clinical nutrition, pulling together what I find to be the most interesting, practical, and groundbreaking science on how to best feed ourselves and our families. I start with the thousands of papers published annually on nutrition (27,000 this year--a new record!) and, thanks to a crack team of volunteers (and now staff!), I'm able to whittle those down (to a mere 8,000 this year). They are then downloaded, categorized, read, analyzed, and churned into the few hundred short videos. This allows me to post new videos and articles every day, year-round, to NutritionFacts.org. This certainly makes the site unique. There's no other science-based source for free daily updates on the latest discoveries in nutrition. The problem is that the amount of information can be overwhelming.

Currently I have more than a thousand videos covering 1,931 nutrition topics. Where do you even begin? Many have expressed their appreciation for the breadth of material, but asked that I try to distill it into a coherent summary of how best to use diet to prevent and treat chronic disease. I took this feedback to heart and in 2012 developed Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, which explored the role diet may play in preventing, arresting, and even reversing our top 15 killers. Not only did it rise to become one of the Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2012, it remains my single most viewed video to date, watched over a million times (NutritionFacts.org is now up to more than 1.5 million hits a month!).

In 2013 I developed the sequel, More Than an Apple a Day, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most common conditions. I presented it around the country and it ended up #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2013. Then in 2014 I premiered the sequel-sequel, From Table to Able, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most disabling diseases, landing #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2014.

Every year I wonder how I'm going to top the year before. Knowing how popular these live presentations can be and hearing all the stories from folks about what a powerful impact they can have on people's lives, I put my all into this new 2015 one. I spent more time putting together this presentation than any other in my life. It took me an entire month, and when you see it I think you'll appreciate why.

This year, I'm honored to bring you Food as Medicine, in which I go through our most dreaded diseases--but that's not even the best part! I'm really proud of what I put together for the ending. I spend the last 20 minutes or so (starting at 56:22) going through a thought experiment that I'm hoping everyone will find compelling. I think it may be my best presentation ever. You be the judge.

You can watch it at no cost online, but it is also available on DVD through my website or on Amazon. If you want to share copies with others, I have a five for $40 special (enter coupon code 5FOR40FAM). All proceeds from the sales of all my books, DVDs, downloads, and presentations go to the 501c3 nonprofit charity that keeps NutritionFacts.org free for all, for all time. If you want to support this initiative to educate millions about eradicating dietary diseases, please consider making a donation.

After you've watched the new presentation, make sure you're subscribed to get my video updates daily, weekly, or monthly to stay on top of all the latest.

-Michael Greger

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