By Fiona Macrae
Last updated at 12:11 AM on 14th September 2011
Taking one vitamin B pill a day from middle age could protect your memory as you grow older – and even ward off Alzheimer’s, British researchers say.
The supplement, which costs just 10p, is described as the ‘first glimmer of hope’ in the battle to find a drug that slows or stops the development of the disease.
Pensioners who took high doses of the vitamin once a day for two years did 70 per cent better on a simple memory test than those who did not.
The Oxford University scientists say the pill prevents the memory lapses that can be a precursor to dementia. They also found it cut brain shrinkage linked to memory loss by up to 500 per cent.
They say people should consider taking high-dose vitamin B from middle age – but only after seeking their doctor’s advice.
Alzheimer’s and forms of dementia blight the lives of more than 800,000 Britons. That number is expected to double within a generation, as the population ages.
In landmark research published last year, Dr Celeste de Jager and her colleagues, who are also behind this study, showed that high doses of vitamin B cut brain shrinkage linked to memory loss.
The latest results, presented at the British Science Festival in Bradford, show that it also helps stop memory from failing.
In the trial, 270 pensioners with mild cognitive impairment – the slight memory lapses that can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s – were asked to take a vitamin B tablet once a day for a year, or given a dummy pill to take instead.
The tablets contained extremely high amounts of vitamins B6, 9 and 12. For instance, the dose of B12 was up to 300 times higher than could be obtained by eating foods rich in the vitamin, such as bananas, wholegrains and meat.
The pill reduced the shrinkage of the brain, which happens naturally with age, by 30 per cent on average – but it halved it in those with the highest levels of a chemical called homocysteine in their bloodstream. In one case, it was cut five-fold.
Homocysteine is a natural compound that builds up in the body as we age and, at high levels, is linked to memory loss and Alzheimer’s. Vitamin B breaks it down.
In the study, those with higher than average levels of homocysteine who took vitamin B performed almost 70 per cent better on a memory test than those who took the placebo pill.
It specifically bolsters episodic memory, the type needed to remember things such as shopping lists – and one of the first to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s.
In addition, those with the very highest levels of homocysteine who took vitamin B were less likely to have progressed towards Alzheimer’s, and in some cases, their memory lapses disappeared entirely after the two years.
Researcher Professor David Smith termed the effects ‘striking’.
But while the team said those in middle age could benefit from the treatment, they stressed they must speak to their doctor.
High-dose vitamins may trigger cancer and are known to fuel existing cancers. They may also react with medicines including arthritis and psoriasis drugs.