(NaturalHealth365) Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, currently affects over 5 million Americans – while heart disease and stroke continue to claim 740,000 lives every year in the United States. As a possible way to help solve this health crisis, scientists are learning that high levels of homocysteine, an amino acid, can contribute to these life-threatening diseases.
For example, a new Temple University study highlights the vital role of B-complex vitamins in controlling homocysteine – and reveals how elevated levels of this amino acid can set the stage for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. With vitamin B deficiencies currently widespread in the United States – and Alzheimer’s disease on the rise – the need for maintaining healthy levels of these essential nutrients has never been more apparent.
Editor’s note: Register now for the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Summit, hosted by Jonathan Landsman, and discover the best strategies to protect your brain health.
What does the new research show about cell death and dementia?
In a study published in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University gave mice a diet deficient in vitamin B6, vitamin B9 (folate) and vitamin B12. After eight months, the team used a water maze test to evaluate the rodents’ memory and learning.
Compared with the control mice – which were fed a normal diet – the mice showed impairments in learning a new task, and in their ability to remember it.
The team found that the animals’ brains not only had elevated levels of homocysteine, but higher levels of “tau,” a protein which destroys neurons (brain nerve cells) and causes disruption in synapses, the junctions which promote neuronal communication.
The vitamin-deprived mice also had a shocking 50 percent increase in neurofibrillary “tau” tangles in the hippocampus and cortex, areas central to learning and memory. Tau tangles are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, and a major component of cell death, dementia and neurodegenerative conditions.
It’s official: Diet-induced elevations in homocysteine damage the brain
In the course of the study, the team gained some insight into the formation of tau tangles. They reported that one of the first changes caused by elevated homocysteine was higher levels of 5-lipoxygenase, the pro-inflammatory chemical responsible for tau tangles.
The next step is to find out if blocking the production of 5LO can prevent – or even reverse – the brain damage that high homocysteine levels can leave in their wake.
Study leader Domenico Pratico, a professor in the Departments of Pharmacology and Microbiology at the Lewis Katz School, noted that high homocysteine levels had previously been linked with amyloid beta plaques, also associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
But, until now, the relationship with tau tangles had been unclear.
The statistics on elevated homocysteine are alarming
Homocysteine, classified as a non-protein amino acid, exists naturally in the human body. It is produced as a byproduct of the metabolism of the amino acid methionine.
High homocysteine levels, medically known as hyperhomocysteinemia, can have a genetic component.
But they can also be caused by stress, improper diet – such as eating too much red meat – and by deficiencies of B vitamins and folic acid. (Note: although coffee has received high marks lately from researchers for its association with lowered risk of degenerative disease, some experts believe that coffee consumption raises homocysteine as well).
Research has shown that high homocysteine levels disrupt fragile arterial linings, promote inflammation and oxidative stress and reduce blood flow to the heart and brain. All of these destructive processes can “prime the pump” for atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease – to such an extent that blood levels of homocysteine can accurately predict risk of heart disease.
Studies have shown that high homocysteine is associated with a 42 percent increase in the risk of narrowing of the carotid arteries. In addition, people with elevated homocysteine who have had a heart attack are at a 30 percent higher risk of experiencing another adverse event – for example, a second heart attack, stroke, or even death.
Finally, high homocysteine doubles the odds of developing dementia (as compared to people with normal levels).
Your doctor can check your homocysteine levels with a simple blood test. Levels under 10 umol/L are considered desirable, with 7 umol/L to 8 umol/L considered optimal.
How do I avoid vitamin B deficiencies and fight high homocysteine?
Unfortunately, vitamin B deficiencies are common, particularly in elderly people. (One study showed that a full 40 percent of heart disease patients aged 80 and over are deficient in vitamin B12).
As vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, vegans and vegetarians may be at risk too.
You can boost your intake of B-complex vitamins by eating healthy amounts of organic spinach, wheat germ, beets and avocados. Wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef and organic dairy products are particularly rich in vitamin B12.
However, supplementation with B-complex vitamins may be the best approach – especially if you have hyperhomocysteinemia. Naturally, you should first consult with your integrative doctor before starting a vitamin regimen.
For lowering high homocysteine, natural health experts often recommend taking 25 to 100 mg of vitamin B2 a day – along with 100 to 200 mg a day of vitamin B6; 1,000 to 10,000 mcg a day of vitamin B9 (folate) and 300 to 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12, or methylcobalamin.
These B-complex vitamins, which all work together to detoxify homocysteine, should be taken along with the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, found in fish oil.
(Encouraging news: in one study, a combination of B vitamins and omega-3s reduced brain shrinkage by 40 percent!)
Clearly, high levels of homocysteine can put you at risk for potentially life-threatening diseases. But a regimen of safe, inexpensive B-complex vitamins can help you lower your levels. When it comes to preserving the health of your heart and brain, these “B” vitamins really are the “A” team.
Sources for this article include:
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