The prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association welcomed the new year by publishing what will surely become a landmark study. Researchers announced the results of a clinical trial of vitamin E in people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's disease. Their findings may well revolutionize our approach to treating Alzheimer's, a disease affecting more than 5.4 million Americans.

The study looked at the effect of dietary supplementation using 2,000 international units (IU) of nonprescription vitamin E daily in a large group of elderly Alzheimer's patients and compared their results over an average of around 2.3 years to similar patients who received a placebo, a pharmaceutical (memantine), or a combination of memantine along with vitamin E.

The best results were found in the people who received the vitamin E alone. In these individuals, the annual rate of decline in functional performance was slowed by approximately 20 percent. Functional performance includes important day-to-day tasks such as preparing meals, bathing, shopping and eating.

While these results are far from representing a cure for Alzheimer's, they nonetheless show that vitamin E allowed people with Alzheimer's to get by with less help from caregivers and maintain their independence longer than those who were given the Alzheimer's drug memantine, either alone or in combination with vitamin E.

Why vitamin E might be beneficial

Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, meaning it protects tissues against the damaging effects of free radicals, chemicals which are produced in the body as a normal part of metabolism.

Earlier research has indicated an excess of free radical activity in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer's. Researchers are focusing on vitamin E's antioxidant activity as a possible explanation of its effectiveness in treating those with the disease.

While the dosage of vitamin E used in this study far exceeds the government's recommended dose for healthy adults (22.4 IU daily), no major health consequences were reported in those just taking the vitamin E. In fact, the only serious problems in the study were reported in those who were given memantine.

A neurologist's perspective

As a practicing neurologist treating Alzheimer's patients each day, I find the results of this study to be extremely encouraging. Vitamin E is widely available, doesn't require a prescription, and is now proven to slow the progression of this devastating disease.

Vitamin E can interact with medications including the blood thinner warfarin, medications used in chemotherapy and anti-inflammatory drugs. So it's a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before starting vitamin E or any nutritional supplement.