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Why aren’t Alzheimer’s charities taking prevention research seriously?

In the UK progress in putting these breakthroughs into action is slow. The two leading charities, the Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK) fail to mention the importance of homocysteine lowering B vitamins and omega-3 at all and have confirmed that they are not funding any research on their use in prevention or planning to do so. ARUK’s chief medical officer Professor Jon Schott and the Alzheimer’s Society’s associate director of research, Richard Oakley, declined to comment.

ARUK’s Brain Health Check-In, a short 13 question check list, with only one very basic question on diet, says nothing at all about B vitamins or whether or not a person supplements omega-3 fish oils despite ARUK having part-funded the Oxford University research. According to Professor Smith, who was the first Chair of their Scientific Advisory Board “ARUK part-funded our trial on B vitamins, and are aware of the results. I don’t understand why they make no mention of such an effective preventive intervention, that is taking a 10p a day B vitamin supplement if your homocysteine is high. Now we know that those who also supplement with omega-3 fish oil, or eat fish regularly, reduce their risk. These are the easiest two prevention actions anyone can take, with a significant impact on reducing the risk for dementia. Everyone needs to know this.”

“We’ve been applying to UK and EU agencies for the past 8 years to fund the obvious next trial – testing the effects of B vitamins and omega-3 combined to see if they slow, or prevent, conversion from cognitive impairment to dementia, but to no avail.” Says Professor Smith.

Neither the Alzheimer’s Society, nor ARUK are funding any vitamin or omega-3 research and spend virtually none of their annual research pot, which exceeded £37 million last year, on diet or lifestyle prevention which offer the most potential, despite these representing up to half of the risk for Alzheimer’s. Neither would confirm the percentage of their research funds that were being spent on prevention research.

UK Government have pledged to deliver ‘Dementia Moonshot’, doubling dementia research funding to £160 million to ‘fast-track the development of new treatments’, meanwhile ignoring the biggest breakthroughs in diet and lifestyle prevention. Most support is feeding failed drug research. With an estimated $50 billion [12] spent so far on amyloid drugs and research, all of which have failed to produce any clinical benefit, isn’t it time governments and Alzheimer’s charities took prevention seriously?

In contrast, the Food for the Brain Foundation are doing just that. “At we are testing almost 4,000 people every month on our free online Cognitive Function Test, and assessing all risk factors on a 140 question questionnaire, including the need for B vitamins and omega-3. We hope, soon, to introduce a pinprick blood test for both omega-3 and homocysteine. We don’t know why the most evidence-based, easy to action and inexpensive prevention steps are being ignored” says Holford. “Why world class scientists such as Professor David Smith’s team at Oxford University have been unable to get funding for the most essential research is shameful. Right now we know enough to cut the average person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to two thirds and the number of people developing dementia by a third if only there was the political will to do so.”

One of the reasons for complacency in the UK is the Lancet’s commissioned report on Alzheimer’s prevention chaired by Gillian Livingston, Professor of Psychiatry for Older  People, at the University College London (UCL). The report, first published in 2017, didn’t include B vitamins. Despite being sent all the evidence by Smith. The 2020 revised report still excluded this vital research, as did a follow up report specifically on supplements in 2022. “There are no trials that show that lowering homocysteine has any benefit” she told us yet she had been sent the unequivocal evidence that the B vitamins reduced brain shrinkage by up to 73%, compared to the 2% reduction of anti-amyloid drugs and the combination of omega-3 and B vitamins has lowered the Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) in placebo controlled trials by three times that reported by the recent anti-amyloid drug, Lecanemab. (see charts below).

When asked about the recent finding of a synergistic effect of B vitamins and omega-3 she said “It sounds a good hypothesis. I hope they can get the funding for it, but raised homocysteine is not common in the wider population and drug companies can’t be expected to fund nutrition trials, so money would have to come from some government agency.”

There is one prevention study, called AppleTree, underway at University College London. It focuses on reducing risk for Alzheimer’s by eating a Mediterranean style diet and lifestyle advice, including encouraging smokers to quit, which is a known risk factor for cognitive decline. One recent study shows that being a smoker increases risk for dementia by 1.5 times and quitting for at least 3 years reduces much of that risk. [13] One in twelve people over 65 smoke.

In contrast, almost half of all people over 65 have raised homocysteine [14] which increases risk for cognitive impairment by up to ten times, according to Chinese research published last year[15]. Lowering homocysteine with B vitamins, and sufficient omega-3, would virtually eliminate that risk. This suggests that targeting B vitamins and omega-3 would be about twenty times more impactful in preventing dementia than quitting smoking. Yet the need for supplemental intake of these nutrients is not part of the Apple Tree protocol.

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[3] van Soest, A.P.M., van de Rest, O., Witkamp, R.F. et al. DHA status influences effects of B-vitamin supplementation on cognitive ageing: a post-hoc analysis of the B-proof trial. Eur J Nutr (2022).

[4] Jernerén F, Cederholm T, Refsum H, Smith AD, Turner C, Palmblad J, Eriksdotter M, Hjorth E, Faxen-Irving G, Wahlund LO, Schultzberg M, Basun H, Freund-Levi Y. Homocysteine Status Modifies the Treatment Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cognition in a Randomized Clinical Trial in Mild to Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease: The OmegAD Study. J Alzheimers Dis. 2019;69(1):189-197. doi: 10.3233/JAD-181148. PMID: 30958356.

[5] Walsh S, Merrick R, Richard E, Nurock S, Brayne C. Lecanemab for Alzheimer’s disease. BMJ. 2022 Dec 19;379:o3010. doi: 10.1136/bmj.o3010. PMID: 36535691.

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[7] Yu JT, Xu W, Tan CC, Andrieu S, Suckling J, Evangelou E, Pan A, Zhang C, Jia J, Feng L, Kua EH, Wang YJ, Wang HF, Tan MS, Li JQ, Hou XH, Wan Y, Tan L, Mok V, Tan L, Dong Q, Touchon J, Gauthier S, Aisen PS, Vellas B. Evidence-based prevention of Alzheimer’s disease: systematic review and meta-analysis of 243 observational prospective studies and 153 randomised controlled trials. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2020 Nov;91(11):1201-1209. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2019-321913. Epub 2020 Jul 20. PMID: 32690803; PMCID: PMC7569385.

[8] Huang Y, Deng Y, Zhang P, Lin J, Guo D, Yang L, Liu D, Xu B, Huang C, Zhang H. Associations of fish oil supplementation with incident dementia: Evidence from the UK Biobank cohort study. Front Neurosci. 2022 Sep 7;16:910977. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2022.910977. PMID: 36161159; PMCID: PMC9489907.

[9] Jeong SM, Park J, Han K, Yoo J, Yoo JE, Lee CM, Jung W, Lee J, Kim SY, Shin DW. Association of Changes in Smoking Intensity With Risk of Dementia in Korea. JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Jan 3;6(1):e2251506. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.51506. PMID: 36656579; PMCID: PMC9857334.

[10] Beydoun MA, Beydoun HA, Gamaldo AA, Teel A, Zonderman AB, Wang Y. Epidemiologic studies of modifiable factors associated with cognition and dementia: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health. 2014 Jun 24;14:643. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-643. PMID: 24962204; PMCID: PMC4099157.

[11] Witte AV, Kerti L, Hermannstädter HM, Fiebach JB, Schreiber SJ, Schuchardt JP, Hahn A, Flöel A. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults. Cereb Cortex. 2014 Nov;24(11):3059-68. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht163. Epub 2013 Jun 24. PMID: 23796946.

[12] Cummings JL, Goldman DP, Simmons-Stern NR, Ponton E. The costs of developing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease: A retrospective exploration. Alzheimers Dement. 2022 Mar;18(3):469-477. doi: 10.1002/alz.12450. Epub 2021 Sep 28. PMID: 34581499; PMCID: PMC8940715.

[13] Lu Y, Sugawara Y, Zhang S, Tomata Y, Tsuji I. Smoking cessation and incident dementia in elderly Japanese: the Ohsaki Cohort 2006 Study. Eur J Epidemiol. 2020 Sep;35(9):851-860. doi: 10.1007/s10654-020-00612-9. Epub 2020 Feb 15. PMID: 32060675; PMCID: PMC7525275.

[14] Pfeiffer CM, Osterloh JD, Kennedy-Stephenson J, Picciano MF, Yetley EA, Rader JI, Johnson CL. Trends in circulating concentrations of total homocysteine among US adolescents and adults: findings from the 1991-1994 and 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Clin Chem. 2008 May;54(5):801-13. doi: 10.1373/clinchem.2007.100214. Epub 2008 Mar 28. PMID: 18375482.

[15] Teng Z, Feng J, Liu R, Ji Y, Xu J, Jiang X, Chen H, Dong Y, Meng N, Xiao Y, Xie X and Lv P (2022) Cerebral small vessel disease mediates the association between homocysteine and cognitive function. Front. Aging Neurosci. 14:868777. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2022.868777