By our seventies, one in five of us will suffer from cognitive impairment. Within five years, half of those cognitively impaired will progress to dementia and death. The earlier we can slow or stop this process, the better.
Although an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is unavailable, interventions just to control risk factors could prevent millions of cases. An immense effort has been spent on identifying such risk factors for Alzheimer’s and developing treatments to reduce them.
In 1990, a small study of 22 Alzheimer’s patients reported high concentrations of homocysteine in their blood. The homocysteine story goes back to 1969 when a Harvard pathologist reported two cases of children, one dating back to 1933, whose brains had turned to mush. They both suffered from extremely rare genetic mutations that led to abnormally high levels of homocysteine in their bodies. Is it possible, he asked, that homocysteine could cause brain damage even in people without genetic defects?
Here we are in the 21st century, and homocysteine is considered “a strong, independent risk factor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.” Having a blood level over 14 (µmol/L) may double our risk. In the Framingham Study, researchers estimate that as many as one in six Alzheimer’s cases may be attributable to elevated homocysteine in the blood, which is now thought to play a role in brain damage and cognitive and memory decline. Our body can detoxify homocysteine, though, using three vitamins: folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. So why don’t we put them to the test? No matter how many studies find an association between high homocysteinea and cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease, a cause-and-effect role can only be confirmed by interventional studies.
Initially, the results were disappointing. Vitamin supplementation did not seem to work, but the studies were tracking neuropsychological assessments, which are more subjective compared to structural neuroimaging—that is, actually seeing what’s happening to the brain. A double-blind randomized controlled trial found that homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins can slow the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in people with mild cognitive impairment. As we age, our brains slowly atrophy, but the shrinking is much accelerated in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. An intermediate rate of shrinkage is found in people with mild cognitive impairment. The thinking is if we could slow the rate of brain loss, we may be able to slow the conversion to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers tried giving people B vitamins for two years and found it markedly slowed the rate of brain shrinkage. The rate of atrophy in those with high homocysteine levels was cut in half. A simple, safe treatment can slow the accelerated rate of brain loss.
A follow-up study went further by demonstrating that B-vitamin treatment reduces, by as much as seven-fold, the brain atrophy in the regions specifically vulnerable to the Alzheimer’s disease process. You can see the amount of brain atrophy over a two-year period in the placebo group versus the B-vitamin group in my Preventing Brain Loss with B Vitamins? video.
The beneficial effect of B vitamins was confined to those with high homocysteine, indicating a relative deficiency in one of those three vitamins. Wouldn’t it be better to not become deficient in the first place? Most people get enough B12 and B6. The reason these folks were stuck at a homocysteine of 11 µmoles per liter is that they probably weren’t getting enough folate, which is found concentrated in beans and greens. Ninety-six percent of Americans don’t even make the minimum recommended amount of dark green leafy vegetables, which is the same pitiful number who don’t eat the minimum recommendation for beans.
If we put people on a healthy diet—a plant-based diet—we can drop their homocysteine levels by 20% in just one week, from around 11 mmoles per liter down to 9 mmoles per liter. The fact that they showed rapid and significant homocysteine lowering without any pills or supplements implies that multiple mechanisms may have been at work. The researchers suggest it may be because of the fiber. Every gram of daily fiber consumption may increase folate levels in the blood nearly 2%, perhaps by boosting vitamin production in the colon by all our friendly gut bacteria. It also could be from the decreased methionine intake.
Methionine is where homocysteine comes from. Homocysteine is a breakdown product of methionine, which comes mostly from animal protein. If we give someone bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steak for dinner, we can get spikes of homocysteine levels in the blood. Thus, decreased methionine intake on a plant-based diet may be another factor contributing to lower, safer homocysteine levels.
The irony is that those who eat plant-based diets long-term, not just at a health spa for a week, have terrible homocysteine levels. Meat-eaters are up at 11 µmoles per liter, but vegetarians at nearly 14 µmoles per liter and vegans at 16 µmoles per liter. Why? The vegetarians and vegans were getting more fiber and folate, but not enough vitamin B12. Most vegans were at risk for suffering from hyperhomocysteinaemia (too much homocysteine in the blood) because most vegans in the study were not supplementing with vitamin B12 or eating vitamin B12-fortified foods, which is critical for anyone eating a plant-based diet. If you take vegans and give them B12, their homocysteine levels can drop down below 5. Why not down to just 11? The reason meat-eaters were stuck up at 11 is presumably because they weren’t getting enough folate. Once vegans got enough B12, they could finally fully exploit the benefits of their plant-based diets and come out with the lowest levels of all.