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Study of nutrition, Alzheimer’s links
hampered by research approach
January 24, 2011 – Research is trying to
determine whether Alzheimer’s disease might
be slowed or prevented with nutritional
approaches, but a new study suggests those
efforts could be improved by use of nutrient
“biomarkers” to objectively assess the
nutrient status of elderly people at risk
The traditional approach, which primarily
relies on self-reported dietary surveys,
asks people to remember what they have
eaten. Such surveys don’t consider two
common problems in elderly populations – the
effect that memory impairment has on recall
of their diet, or digestive issues that
could affect the absorption of nutrients.
This issue is of particular concern, experts
say, because age is the primary risk factor
for Alzheimer’s disease, and the upcoming
wave of baby boomers and people 85 years and
older will soon place many more people at
risk for dementia.
“Dietary and nutritional studies have
yielded some intriguing results, but they
are inconsistent,” said Emily Ho, an
associate professor of nutrition at Oregon
State University, co-author of the study,
and principal investigator with OSU’s Linus
“If we are going to determine with
scientific accuracy whether one or another
nutritional approach to preventing dementia
may have value, we must have methods that
accurately reflect the nutritional status of
patients,” Ho said.
“The gold standard to assess nutritional
status should be biomarkers based on blood
The research was just published in
Alzheimer’s Disease and Associated
Disorders, in work supported by the National
Institutes of Health.
he study was led by Dr. Gene Bowman, a
nutrition and aging researcher at Oregon
Health and Science University, in
collaboration with OSU researchers.
Prevention strategies for Alzehimer’s
disease are “becoming more feasible,”
researchers said, because scientists are
beginning to understand what populations are
at high risk for developing the disease.
“One of the issues in doing a good study is
understanding the nutritional status of your
participants when you start and how the
nutrient treatment changes it,” Ho said.
“Giving supplements or foods to a person who
already has a normal nutritional status of
that nutrient may be very different than if
the person is deficient.”
Complicating the issue, she said, is that
elderly people in general may not absorb or
process many nutrients as well as younger
adults, and because of genetic differences
they many have different biological
responses to the same level of a nutrient.
Knowing what they ate gives, at best, only a
partial picture of what their nutritional
status actually is. And it also assumes that
people, including those with beginning
dementia, will always remember with accuracy
what their diet actually has been when
questioned about 124 food items in an
interview that can last up to two hours.
In this study, the scientists recruited 38
elderly participants, half with documented
memory deficit and the other half
cognitively intact. They compared the
reliability of the nutrient biomarkers to
food questionnaires administered twice over
The questionnaire was able to determine some
nutrient levels, but only in the group with
The reliability of the nutrient biomarkers
depended on the nutrient of interest, but
overall performed very well.
“Now that we have a reliable blood test for
assessing nutritional status, we can begin
to study nutrient biomarkers in combination,
their interactive features, and how they
collectively may influence chronic diseases,
including risk for Alzheimer’s disease and
dementia,” Bowman said.
Such approaches could lead to more effective
nutritional therapies in the future to
promote cognitive health, he said.
About the Linus Pauling Institute: The
Linus Pauling Institute at OSU is a world
leader in the study of micronutrients and
their role in promoting optimum health or
preventing and treating disease. Major areas
of research include heart disease, cancer,
aging and neurodegenerative disease.