Vitamin B may help to improve thinking in older people when it gets a boost from omega-3

Published 18 January 2016

Findings published today in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease suggest that vitamin B supplements could help to improve learning and memory for some older people who already have high levels of omega-3 in their blood.

The international research team, which included scientists from Oxford University, have been investigating whether vitamin B acids can help to slow memory loss in older people. Over 250 older people with mild cognitive impairment (memory problems that are not severe enough to be classed as dementia) were split randomly into two groups and given either B vitamins or a placebo for two years. Blood levels of several chemicals, including omega-3, were measured before and after the study.

It was found that people who had high levels of omega-3 in their blood and took vitamin B performed better at thinking and memory tests, compared to those who didn’t take vitamin B or had low omega-3. The researchers did not look into why these people had high omega-3, nor did they provide supplements as part of the experiment.

Previous results from the same trial indicated that B vitamins were able to reduce brain shrinkage in people with mild cognitive impairment, if they already had good levels of omega-3.  

Evidence for the role of vitamin B in dementia is not clear-cut. B vitamins are responsible for lowering homocysteine, a chemical often found at high levels in the blood of people with dementia, but some clinical trials have shown that taking B vitamins has no effect on brain function, despite their effect on homocysteine.

Next, the group plan to investigate whether a combination of vitamin B and omega-3 supplements can help to slow or prevent the development of dementia in people with mild cognitive impairment.

Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society said:

'These results help us to tease apart who could benefit from taking B vitamins, suggesting that they might only improve cognition in people who have high levels of omega-3 oils in their blood. Encouragingly, these findings suggest that for some older people a combination of fish oil supplements and B vitamins may help to improve thinking and memory.

'As this study shows, the relationship between nutrition and brain health is complex and we need to see increased research efforts to help us understand the role that diet and nutrition can play in reducing a person’s risk of dementia.'

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