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Grain May Be Gain When It Comes to Alzheimer's

But stick to the whole wheat breads

MONDAY, May 7 (HealthScout) -- The next time someone asks what kind of sandwich bread you prefer, consider wheat instead of white. According to a new study, whole grains may provide the nutritional boost you need to keep Alzheimer's disease at bay.

But you'll be in a definite minority if you get enough brain food from the two B vitamins that were the subjects of the research. "It's a very select population," says Leslie Bonci, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Swedish researchers studied the levels of the two vitamins in 78 patients with Alzheimer's disease, a devastating and incurable disorder that mainly hits the elderly. More than half of those examined -- 46 -- had low levels of vitamin B-12, folic acid (also known as vitamin B-9), or both.

The results of the study appear in the May 8 issue of Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

While there appears to be a connection between the vitamins and Alzheimer's disease, researchers aren't sure if poor nutrition actually causes the disease, says study co-author Hui-Xin Wang, a researcher at Karolinska Institutet, a Swedish university.

However, it appears unlikely that the disease itself caused the levels of the vitamins to drop, he says. That's because the subjects were tested before they developed Alzheimer's.

Researchers have several theories about why the subjects may be more vulnerable to Alzheimer's. A shortage of either vitamin may increase the levels of an amino acid called homocysteine, which poisons and sometimes kills cells, Wang says.

High levels of homocysteine are a well-known contributor to life-threatening clogged arteries, Bonci says, but they also appear to limit the brain's consumption of oxygen. The problems "are not just from the neck down," she says. "They're also from the neck up."

A poor diet may not be the only reason the subjects had low levels of folic acid and vitamin B-12 , Wang says. The subjects were all older than 75, and their aging bodies may have more trouble absorbing the nutrients, he says.

After folic acid was shown to prevent birth defects, the federal government in 1998 ordered food companies to fortify bread and cereal products. But many of the products provide only a fraction of the daily recommended allowance of the vitamin, Bonci said.

Nutritional supplements may help, but some researchers question whether folic acid absorbed through a vitamin tablet is effective. Bonci recommends that Americans eat more whole grain foods, leafy green vegetables, and dry beans and peas.

"You can't just say, 'I just had a bowl of cereal and I don't need to worry about it,'" she says. To get more of the vitamins, she recommends that people add spinach to their salads and choose whole wheat bread at lunch. "Even if you have one slice of wheat and one of white [in a sandwich], it's better than none at all. We want to give the body a fighting chance."

Senior citizens should also increase their consumption of folic acid and vitamin B-12, although scientists aren't certain if that will help so late in life, she says.

What To Do

Folic acid does more than help your brain. Recent research has shown that it can help the body fight off cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and even male infertility and birth defects.

To learn more about Alzheimer's disease, visit the Alzheimer's Association or the Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center. You can also try the Alzheimer Research Forum, or this site at the University of California at Irvine.

For more on folic acid, take a look at information from the National Library of Medicine.

Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on Alzheimer's disease and others on folic acid.

SOURCES: Interviews with Hui-Xin Wang, Ph.D., researcher, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Occupational Therapy and Elderly Care, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden; and Leslie Bonci, M.P.H., R.D., spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and director of sports nutrition, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; May 8, 2001 issue of Neurology
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