Preventing dementia by controlling homocysteine levels in the body

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The rising popularity of cosmetic surgery in the UK and a proliferation of body makeover shows on TV point to our increasing preoccupation in allaying the visible signs of ageing. While it seems that many of us have a desire to protect ourselves from any external evidence of ageing, my experience is that there is considerable interest in approaches that might ward off the internal effects of the ageing process too. I quite commonly see individuals in practice who, for instance, complain that they are not as mentally sharp as they used to be. Some are particularly concerned that their loss of mental edge may represent the first steps on the road to a brain drain condition such as Alzheimer’s disease.

While the processes underlying brain function deterioration are many and varied, there has been considerable interest recently in the potential part played here by a substance known as homocysteine. Excesses of this natural blood constituent appear to have the capacity to damage the lining of the arteries and predispose to atherosclerosis – the process responsible for the gradual furring up of our arteries that is common in ageing. Atherosclerosis may end up compromising blood supply to the brain, and is a recognised risk factor for diminishing brain function and dementia in later life.

Not surprisingly, studies have found that high blood levels of homocysteine are associated with an increased risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease. One such study, published in this month’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, discovered that high homocysteine levels were linked with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, even in individuals unaffected by compromise to the blood supply to their brains. This finding suggests that homocysteine, in addition to increasing the risk that the brain will be starved of blood, may be directly toxic to the brain tissue as well.

Scientists have now started to put forward the idea that quelling homocysteine levels may help to preserve brain function and protect against dementia in time. While studies that have tested this theory are yet to be published, the evidence to date is certainly consistent with this notion. Nutrients known to help reduce homocysteine levels include folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6. Interestingly, the recent AJCN study found that low levels of folate were found to be a risk factor Alzheimer’s disease. Also, another study in the same edition of the journal found that a low level in any of the nutrients folate, B12 or B6 appeared to increase the risk of general brain function decline.

Foods rich in folate include oranges and green leafy vegetables. Vitamin B6 can be found in liver, avocado, bananas and fish, while meat, fish and eggs are all good sources of vitamin B12. In addition to including such foods in the diet, I recommend supplementing with 800 ” 1000 mcg of folic acid, 10 mg of vitamin B6 and 400 mcg of vitamin B12 each day. For those keen to do what they can to preserve brain function, I reckon ensuring a good intake of these nutrients is certainly worth thinking about.

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