What is vitamin E?

Vitamin E is a nutrient commonly found in many foods like green vegetables and nuts. It can also be consumed as a supplement.

According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin E "acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals."

The recommended dosage varies by age. The federal government suggests adults need about 15 milligrams, or 22.4 IU (International Units), every day.

Alzheimer's disease patients at the VA Medical Center who participated in this recent study received much larger doses of vitamin E - 2,000 IU per day.

That amount should not be consumed without first consulting a doctor because the nutrient has blood-thinning side effects.

The latest breakthrough in Alzheimer's disease research isn't a brand-new multimillion-dollar prescription drug. It's a vitamin.

Scientists writing in the January issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association - including one Charleston doctor - have discovered that a large daily dose of vitamin E significantly delayed functional decline among patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.

The results from the five-year study are especially promising because vitamin E is inexpensive compared to pharmaceutical therapies, which cost billions of dollars to develop and usually take years before they are approved for consumer use.

The Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Administration Medical Center served as one of the study's 14 test sites.

Dr. Jacobo Mintzer, director of the Roper St. Francis Clinical Biotechnology Research Institute and a VA Medical Center physician, agreed to answer questions about the new report, which he co-authored. His answers have been edited for length.

Q: What was the main finding of this study?

A: What we learned, to our surprise because we didn't believe it would be so optimistic, is that vitamin E delayed the progression of Alzheimer's disease for about six months and not only delayed the progression of Alzheimer's disease, but delayed the progression when it matters - which is in the abilities of the patients to be independent.

We can see the consequences of this increasing independence because the caregivers had to invest less time in providing care for them. So it's a logical measure.

Q: How will this study affect the way Alzheimer's patients receive treatment?

A: (Vitamin E) should be a clear consideration - for sure a subject of discussion - for every patient with mild to moderate Alzheimer's that goes to a doctor for treatment. No question about it.

Q: The study found that 2,000 IU of vitamin E daily delayed a patient's progression of Alzheimer's disease by 6.2 months. Is a 6.2 month delay considered a significant amount of time?

A: The average (lifespan) from the moment you are diagnosed is about eight years. It ranges from six months to 20 (years).

You can say in eight years, six months is 1/16th, which doesn't sound like a lot. However . it's six months more that the person can be himself. It's six months more that a person can go to a wedding and look good. It's six months more that a person can have a trip with their spouse.

It's adding, on the average, six months more of quality of life for an individual.

Q: Vitamin E is cheap compared with typical Alzheimer's disease drugs, isn't it?

A: That's the final advantage. It's readily available relative to a doctor's prescription. We know it extremely well. We know its safety. It doesn't need special FDA approval, so it's kind of an ideal situation.

Q: Does this study's conclusion have any implications for younger adults without Alzheimer's? In other words, should we all be taking more vitamin E?

A: At these doses (2,000 IU daily), vitamin E should not be taken unless you have medical supervision because it has anti-coagulant effects.

We know that it's only effective for people with mild to moderate (Alzheimer's) disease. If you don't have the disease, it doesn't seem to be playing the trick.

The full report is available on Journal of the American Medical Association's website, www.jama.com.