Dementia, the umbrella term used to describe brain conditions such as mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is becoming increasingly common in the elderly of today. This is mainly due to an ageing population, coupled with years of unhealthy lifestyle habits — the emphasis on poor diet, exercise and smoking. Some are even predicting rates will triple by mid-century.
Preventing the increase of dementia is of course a hot topic, with diet known to be a key player in the condition. It is thought that nutritious diets, particularly those rich in vitamin E can help reduce the risk of cognitive impairment down the track.
Naturally then, there are myriad vitamin E supplements on the market which claim to improve memory processes and brain function. I’ve been quite skeptical of the effectiveness of dietary supplements for some time now, and I’m not the only one.
The problem with alpha-tocopherol
For the past several years, with the rise of the $68 billion dollar dietary supplement industry, vitamin E supplements have been touted as ‘brain health boosters.’ Currently, the antioxidant compound of vitamin E known as alpha-tocopherol is the only form used to define vitamin E dietary requirements. This is because it’s the only form tested in randomized controlled trials — the highest level of scientific studies — in subjects with AD and MCI. As such, alpha-tocopherol is the vitamin E found in most mainstream supplement brands.
But there is a big problem with supplementing only alpha-tocopherol.
Vitamin E is actually made up of two forms: tocopherols and tocotrienols. Each form has alpha, beta, delta and gamma varieties, making 8 varieties of vitamin E altogether.
Review studies are now discovering that the science behind recommending alpha-tocopherol as a supplement on its own should be re-examined. Turns out tocopherols combined with tocotrienols may be the dose of vitamin E which actually has a significant beneficial effect on memory processes.
The full vitamin E story
A recent study published in Experimental Gerontology was based on an 8-year follow up of 140 non-cognitively impaired elderly subjects. Researchers found that those who had the highest levels of gamma-tocopherol, beta-tocotrienol, and all total tocotrienols had the lowest risk of developing cognitive impairment. Alpha-tocopherol had less significance than once believed.
There is no doubting that elderly people with high vitamin E levels are less likely to suffer from memory disorders than their peers with lower levels. However, it needs to be vitamin E in its complete form, including both tocopherols and tocotrienols.
The best dietary way to maintain your memory
Memory processes in your brain are best preserved and prolonged when your diet is rich in vitamin E. Foods naturally high in vitamin E, both tocopherols and tocotrienols, should be your first resort. Dietary supplements tend to have only the half-form of vitamin E, alpha-tocopherol, which is not clinically proven to have any health benefits.
So instead of pills and powders, go for wholesome vitamin E-rich foods, such as oats, rye, barley, rice bran and coconut (the oil especially).
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