It is natural and commendable for people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease to want to play an active role in their treatment and care plan. Many seek out alternative treatments, like herbal remedies, dietary supplements, or “medical foods.”
Some older people may benefit from augmenting their diet with vitamin B12, B6, D, and calcium supplements, but for the most part, eating a variety of healthy foods is the best way to make sure you have all the nutrients your body needs. Research has shown that a healthy diet and active lifestyle are two effective non-pharmacological methods for reducing the risk of dementia, and possibly helping those living with dementia to better cope with their symptoms.
There are many supplements that claim to support cognition in a variety of ways. Anecdotal and small-scale studies support their effectiveness, but in many cases larger trials either do not confirm these findings, or simply haven’t been performed. Below are some of the substances used as complementary alternative medicine for treating or preventing dementia, along with some of the scientific conclusions about their efficacy.
Extracts of the Ginkgo tree have been used medicinally for thousands of years. It is thought to function as a memory aid and to prevent cognitive decline and even dementia, and to alleviate cognitive symptoms of other neurological and psychological maladies. It is believed to increase blood flow to the brain and regulate neurotransmitter systems.
Animal studies and small clinical trials have suggested that gingko biloba provides modest improvements in cognitive function, but the evidence doesn’t support the claim that it can prevent memory problems. Additionally, larger clinical trials that employed more current methods showed no overall benefit. The Mayo Clinic rates ginkgo biloba as having good scientific evidence for use in dealing with symptoms of dementia and generalized anxiety disorder, but stresses that additional research is needed.
Coconut oil/Caprylic acid (Ketasyn or Axona)
Caprylic acid is a fat produced by processing coconut oil. Caprylic acid is broken down by the body into substances called ketone bodies. The theory behind using coconut oil or drugs containing caprylic acid is that these ketone bodies can serve as an alternative to glucose for cerebral metabolic processes – proponents of this treatment posit that a brain with Alzheimer’s disease is better able to use ketones than glucose.
A protein similar to ketone bodies is used in a drug called Ketasyn, which was studied in a Phase II clinical trial of 152 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s (who were also taking FDA-approved Alzheimer’s drugs). The trial was sponsored by the product’s manufacturers. The participants treated with Ketasyn are reported to have performed better on the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale – Cognitive subscale, and patients with the apoe-e4 Alzheimer’s risk gene showed more sustained benefit. However, the manufacturers chose not to proceed with Phase III trials to confirm its effectiveness on a larger scale. Instead, the findings were used to create Axona, which is classified as a “medical food.”
Coconut oil is used by people with Alzheimer’s to achieve this same benefit, but no clinical studies have been performed on coconut oil as a dietary supplement. Because of the lack of Phase III trials of Axona, and an absence of clinical testing of coconut oil, there is insufficient scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of this approach to treating Alzheimer’s.
A highly refined dietary supplement derived from a form of Chinese moss called Huperzia serrata, has properties similar to cholinesterase inhibitors (Exelon, Aricept), which work by improving levels of neurotransmitters.
Small scale studies have shown that huperzine A may significantly improve memory in patients with Alzheimer’s, and may protect nerve cells in the brain. However, not all studies have yielded such positive conclusions, and most studies haven’t followed participants for long enough to determine its long-term safety. Findings on this medication are promising, but further study is required. Huperzine A should not be taken in addition to FDA-approved cholinesterase inhibitors, which could result in side effects.
Omega 3 fatty acids/fish oil supplements
Naturally, omega 3 fatty acids are found in fish, walnuts, dairy, flaxseed, and other whole foods. The omega 3 acid that is related to brain health is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). It’s believed that omega 3s might influence the risk of developing dementia.
Some studies have shown slight cognitive improvement for people with very mild dementia or simply normal age-related decline, and other studies link consumption of omega 3s with greater brain volume in older adults. On the whole, however, evidence of its effectiveness is conflicting, and further study is needed before it can be recommended as a treatment.
If you are thinking about using dietary or herbal supplements:
- Find out as much as you can about any dietary supplement you might take. Talk to your doctor, your pharmacist, or a registered dietitian. A supplement that seemed to help your neighbor might not work for you. If you are reading fact sheets or checking websites, be aware of the source of the information. Could the writer or group profit from the sale of a particular supplement?
- Just because something is said to be “natural” doesn’t also mean it is either safe or good for you. It could have side effects. It might make a medicine your doctor prescribed for you either weaker or stronger.
- Tell your doctor.He or she needs to know if you decide to go ahead and use a dietary supplement. Do not diagnose or treat your health condition without first checking with your doctor.
- Buy wisely.Choose brands that your doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist says are trustworthy. Don’t buy dietary supplements with ingredients you don’t need. Don’t assume that more is better. It is possible to waste money on unneeded supplements.
- Check the science.Make sure any claim made about a dietary supplement is based on scientific proof. The company making the dietary supplement should be able to send you information on the safety and/or effectiveness of the ingredients in a product, which you can then discuss with your doctor. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.