The Vitamin of Wonders

Alzheimer’s disease, the brain disease that causes memory loss, has recently been linked to vitamin A deficiencies beginning as early as pregnancy. It is a form of dementia, a broader group of symptoms that interfere with memory. Alzheimer’s can lead to withdrawal, disorientation, mood swings, and issues with behavior in addition to short and long-term memory loss. The disease is progressive, meaning that symptoms it includes worsen with time. While the cause for Alzheimer’s is disputable, previous studies have highlighted a connection to genetics, head injuries, and depression. It has also been noted that women are more likely to experience Alzheimer’s than men.(1) Though there are no current medications and comprehensive treatments for Alzheimer’s, supplementary vitamins such as vitamin A have shown to reduce one’s risk of acquiring the disease. 

Alzheimer’s targets the brain in all aspects including memory, behavior, and regular thought processes. Specifically, it attacks the brain cells related to learning, thinking, and judgment. It can cause patients to be confused and disable them from going about their daily activities. Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and individuals with Alzheimer’s typically live around eight years following the display of symptoms.(2) However, early diagnosis and mediation is essential in improving one’s condition. Despite the fact that no cure for Alzheimer’s exists and its progression cannot be stopped, it can be slowed and preventative measures can certainly be taken.

The impact of Alzheimer’s can be determined by several processes. The brain has many cells that connect and essentially “talk to” and exchange information with other cells. Some of these cells allow people to think and recall information. These things are prevented with Alzheimer’s in the picture. Over time the cells begin to die, which explains why Alzheimer’s gets worse as time goes on. This process overall is caused by proteins that build up and block the areas of the brain that are important for memory. Patients with Alzheimer’s have a higher number of these proteins as shown by scans administered to determine whether patients have the disease or not.(2)

Vitamin A is generally known to boost immunity and is found in food sources such as dairy, eggs, fish, and vegetables. Precisely, vitamin A is linked to the maintenance of memory and protecting people from infection.(3) This relation led Dr. Weihong Song, a Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer’s disease to perform a study on exactly how much the lack of vitamin A in pregnant women contributes to the presence of Alzheimer’s in their children.4 Song’s study at the University of British Columbia in Canada first involved the use of mice. One group of mice was given normal diets and vitamin A while another was given the same diet without Vitamin A. The mice that were not given any vitamin A performed worse on tests that measured the mice’s ability to learn and memorize things.4 When the mice that were not given vitamin A began to take vitamin A, they still performed worse than the mice that were given vitamin A before birth. This showed that the damage to the brain was already done by the time the mice’s babies were born. In the same way, Alzheimer’s symptoms can be seen as early as pregnancy. Again, while curing Alzheimer’s is impossible, Song discovered that if the mice were given vitamin A immediately after birth, their performance was slightly better. However, the later that the mice were given the vitamin, the less effective it was in helping them perform better.

Song performed a secondary study at the Children’s Hospital of Chongqing Medical University in China on humans.(4) This time, Song replaced the mice with older, human patients. Song looked at the medical records of each patient from the day they were born to see whether their mothers had taken their vitamins while pregnant. With this information in mind, Song looked at how the patients went about their daily activities and how well they remembered information that was given to them over the time of the study. Approximately 75% of the seniors that were deficient in vitamin A as babies had some kind of trouble in remembering the facts that Song gave them. In contrast, only 47% of the people that had received their vitamins as babies had the same trouble. This shows a nearly 30% increase in the likelihood of experiencing symptoms similar to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in the patients surveyed.

Song’s studies showed that vitamin A and other nutrients can impact the development of brain tissue very early and can even slow the progress of dementia.(5) The mice that were given vitamins showed to have lower levels of a protein that is in high levels in people with Alzheimer’s. 
On the other hand, the fact that vitamin A can lower these levels suggests that through vitamin intake, Alzheimer’s can be managed somehow before a person is born. The key to doing this and trying to treat Alzheimer’s is treating it early. The early stages of brain development are crucial and in these stages, cells need to be able to “talk to” other cells and allow people to go on with their days as usual.

Similar studies have linked the development of autism in brain cells before birth and during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.(6) A study of the brains of children with and without autism showed that those with autism had abnormally shaped cells in certain areas of the brain. This shows that the key stages of brain development occur early. This can even be as early as the second trimester of pregnancy before a baby is fully developed. Treating the brain diseases of individuals therefore starts this early and the management of pregnancies can contribute to inclinations to developing these diseases or possibly, not developing them. 

The discovery of the link between vitamin A deficiency and Alzheimer’s disease raises the question of controlling the issues in pregnancy. Dr. Song insisted that taking too much vitamin A, or too much of anything for that matter, can actually be harmful and that the only way to utilize its benefits is through a balanced diet. Furthermore, the deficiency in vitamin A is more common in individuals of less developed nations. In terms of pregnancy, pregnant women are advised to manage their diets and take beneficial supplements in order to preserve their health and the health of their children as well. Though this advice was previously acknowledged, the discovery that Alzheimer’s could be prevented contributes highly to its significance and urgent nature. 

Vitamin supplements have long been connected to maintaining health of mothers and their babies during pregnancy. Though there is a recommended amount that should be taken daily, taking no supplements at all can have detrimental effects. In 2011, two vegan parents in France failed to provide vitamins to their infant daughter, causing the baby to die of an infection.(7) Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou, the baby’s parents, were later charged with neglect. The patient, their baby, was found to have suffered from deficiency of vitamin A as well as B12. The baby had only been fed breast-milk and was significantly underweight. These deficiencies contributed to the baby’s unbalanced diet due to the mother’s diet. Prior to the baby’s death, Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou were in charge of an organic food business and told officials that they did not trust Western medicine and preferred to care for their child on the basis of their personal research. The Le Moaligou’s continued to treat their daughter with organic foods, bathed her with organic materials, and were unaware that they inhibited their daughter from beneficial nutrients that would aid her development. 

Proper brain development can be assisted in various other ways. By exercising regularly, pregnant women can prevent long-term brain diseases like Alzheimer’s in their babies.(8) A similar mice study showed that mothers who exercised had babies that showed less signs of the disease than mothers who did not exercise. Unborn children are immensely impacted by everything that their mothers are exposed to. Likewise, another study performed by the University of Cambridge proposed that breastfeeding after childbirth can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in mothers.(9) 

These studies impact the way that pregnancies are approached and treated as well as how Alzheimer’s can be prevented and medicated. The link between nutrition and supplements like vitamin A and Alzheimer’s can reduce one’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s should the proper steps be taken during pregnancy. Early action provides the best options and chances of steering clear of Alzheimer’s. By increasing their intake of vitamin A, pregnant women have an additional way to protect their children from the disease. Similarly, the discoveries of this link can help aiding less developed countries in fighting the global occurrence and prevalence of Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the notion that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor a way,’ has some truth. Sufficient amounts of vitamin A can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and ensure good brain development and a correspondingly good memory.

Nadja ZakulaComment