“Wouldn’t it be nice if people could pop a pill to prevent dementia? If ever it comes to pass, that pill won’t contain B vitamins”, declared the Alzheimer’s Forum, a website for pharmaceutical researchers.
“Taking B vitamins does not seem to cut the risk of developing dementia”, said the BBC last month. Meanwhile, the Alzheimer’s Society launch their prevention plan – but, extraordinarily B vitamins and homocysteine are not even mentioned. Has something happened to question the advice to take B vitamin supplements? The answer is yes and no.
Last month to quote the BBC, “scientists headed by Professor Lisette de Groot, Wageningen University, the Netherlands, found that a supplement containing vitamin B12 and folic acid did not improve cognitive performance in nearly 3,000 volunteers predicted to get a boost from the supplements”.
What actually happened in the research process for this study?
Almost 3,000 participants were given B12 (500mcg) and folic acid (400mcg), or placebos. The individuals were aged 65+ without memory problems but with high homocysteine levels above 12/mcmol/l, which is a risk factor for developing dementia later in life.
On testing two years later those on B vitamins versus placebos had a significant one third slower decline in their memory function as measured by the MiniMentalStateExam (MMSE), but no change in other cognitive tests which were run on a much smaller sub-group of participants.
According to Professor David Smith, author of a previous study on the effects of B vitamins on cognitive function “the study was almost certainly underpowered”, in other words the sub-groups were too small to pick up a significant change in two years.
Other than the MMSE, the other test applied to the whole group was for ‘episodic memory’. There was no significant change overall, but when the authors selected the participants with low B12 status (they measured this in a blood test called HoloTC) those that were given B vitamins again had a significantly slower rate of decline.
The placebo group declined 50% faster than you would expect on average over the two years that the study was conducted. But what happened to those on the B vitamins? They declined a significant third less and from this result you would expect them to take three times as long to develop mild cognitive impairment, leading to dementia.
The accurate BBC headline should have been: B vitamins slow risk of developing dementia by a third.
So why the bad press? Nobody in either group developed dementia, so how could the BBC say “taking B vitamins does not cut the risk of developing dementia”? Why indeed. Both the study authors and Professor David Smith complained to the BBC about their blatant misrepresentation of the study results.
If your homocysteine level is high (above 10mcmol/l) all the evidence to date points in the same direction — that B vitamins do either slightly improve, arrest or slow down the rate of memory decline versus placebos. In other words, taking B vitamins works for those at risk by virtue of having high homocysteine, which is about half the 65+ population.
So, why all the negative reporting in the media? Possibly money makes the wheels go round… The last thing pharmaceutical companies want is a non-patentable, non-profitable B vitamin supplement cutting dementia risk.
Cynical? Maybe… But they want a patentable, profitable drug. If there was a drug that could reduce the shrinkage of the Alzheimer’s areas of the brain by almost nine times, and virtually stop any further memory, they would be shouting this from the rooftops.
Instead, it appears that the intention is to kill off the competition — B vitamins…