30/10/2014 12:05 GMT | Updated 29/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Fighting Alzheimer's Through Nutrition: What Healthcare Professionals Need to Know

Perhaps the cruelest aspect of Alzheimer's is that it robs families of their loved ones before they are truly gone. Loss of memories and physical abilities frustrates patients and pains family. Every health professional who works with Alzheimer's looks forward to the day when patients can be told there is a cure. While Alzheimer's can't yet be cured or prevented, its progression can be slowed.

A growing body of evidence strongly suggests that vitamins, particularly vitamins E and D, may help slow the onset of Alzheimer's disease and delay progression for months. Healthcare professionals and neurologists can play a key role in educating patients about the benefits of nutrition for improved cognitive health. With an aging population - 35 million people living with Alzheimer's worldwide, and that number expected to quadruple by 2050 - it is important to be aware of the impact of vitamins and nutrition on healthy aging.

Alzheimer's Disease, Vitamin E and Vitamin D.

There are benefits to taking vitamins for Alzheimer's patients. Maurice Dysken, a researcher with the Minneapolis VA Health Care System in the United States, and his team found that vitamin E supplementation delayed the rate of clinical progression of Alzheimer's disease for some patients by 19 percent - approximately 6.2 months - over a two-year period, and reduced the amount of caregiver time by nearly two hours per day. The supplements did not delay cognitive or memory deterioration, but they did preserve for longer patients' ability to do daily activities like getting dressed and feeding themselves.

According to a recently published review in Nutrition, high vitamin E, vitamin B6 and folate intake can be linked individually with a decrease in the onset of Alzheimer's type dementia. In addition, several trials investigating the benefits of vitamin E for Alzheimer's patients showed a slower functional decline when compared to subjects taking the placebo. The Nutrition review also highlighted the benefits of vitamin D for Alzheimer's patients. A study of 498 older women showed that the highest consumption of vitamin D was associated with a 4.35 fold decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer's type dementia.

Additional evidence from a recent Neurologystudy focused on the benefits of vitamin D for healthy cognitive function. Researchers found that the risk of developing all-cause dementia and Alzheimer's disease was significantly higher in participants who were deficient or severely deficient in vitamin D. In fact, those who were deficient had roughly a 51 percent increased risk of all-cause dementia, and that risk more than doubled - to 122 percent - for severely deficient adults.

The Scale of the Problem.

Yet more than 75 percent of the British population does not get enough vitamin E and D. Other developed countries have similar vitamin insufficiency rates.

Vitamins E and D can be found in foods like dairy products, vegetable oils, nuts, whole grains, fish liver oils and meat, but it is difficult to get the recommended daily amount through diet alone, especially for adults over 50. Changes to modern eating habits are partly to blame, as low-nutrient, high-calorie foods make it hard to obtain sufficient quantities of essential vitamins from diet alone.

Optimal Vitamin Intake.

This means that food fortification with vitamins and/or supplements are often necessary for optimal health, especially among adults. For optimal health, an intake of 800 IU of vitamin D to achieve a blood level between 50-75 nmol/L is recommended, as well as 15-30 mg of vitamin E. People with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease and those at risk for dementia or Alzheimer's disease should take a higher dose of up to 2000 mg of vitamin E.

How Healthcare Professionals and Neurologists Can Help.

Educating patients is key. Do your patients know their vitamin intake status? If not, have them get their vitamin levels tested. Let them know about foods rich in vitamins D and E. And if, like most people, they are unable to get the nutrients they need from their diet, provide information on vitamin supplements and their importance to healthy aging and cognitive function.

In the Western world, elderly people can expect their health to deteriorate to a level where they need care 8-11 years before the end of their life. By educating patients about the importance of nutrition and vitamins in helping delay onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease, health providers can give patients a few more months--maybe years--of independence.

As anyone who's been impacted by Alzheimer's knows, even a few months can mean a world of difference.