Thanks for the Memories

IT'S TIME TO STOP thinking about vitamins as nutritional supplements. And start thinking about them more as drugs.

Report upon report has been touting vitamin E, along with vitamins A and C, as preventives of such chronic disorders as heart disease, arthritis, cataracts, even cancer. But a new study suggests that in amounts larger than daily diets normally supply, it may delay age-related damage to the brain associated with memory loss.

At the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, researchers have found that vitamin E prevents the death of nerve cells exposed to beta amyloid protein. This protein is found in large quantities in brain lesions that occur as a natural consequence of aging but that are also especially characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. They congregate in areas of the brain essential for g and memory function.

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According to Salk's David Schubert, Ph.D., vitamin E may combat the death of brain cells by scavenging free radicals. These are wildly reactive oxygen molecules now implicated in many degenerative diseases and thought to be given off when beta amyloid comes into contact with a nerve cell. Free radicals kill cells by destroying their outer membranes.

So far, vitamin E has been tested directly against nerve cells in test-tube studies. Next come clinical trials to see whether it halts progressive memory loss.

Alzheimer's disease, which affects 10 to 15 percent of the population over age 65, may take as long as 20 years to develop. The initial stage affects memory and skills often related to job performance. The second stage shows increasing memory loss, added confusion, and shorter attention span. In the third and final stage, victims lose the ability to communicate.

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