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Report: Vitamin E, Parkinson's drug slow Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimers graphic April 23, 1997
Web posted at: 11:35 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Researchers said Wednesday that Vitamin E and a drug used to treat Parkinson's disease may slow the deterioration caused by Alzheimer's disease.

"I think it's a big deal for two reasons," Mary Sano of Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons said at a news conference.

"These are outcomes that relate to the quality of life of patients and their families ... The second reason is because it's important to do these kinds of ... long studies and look at meaningful outcomes."

The findings, reported in Wednesday's New England Journal of Medicine, show that patients who took vitamin E or the anti-Parkinson's drug selegiline or eldepryl were able to delay for six to seven months key symptoms of the disease, such as memory loss and the ability to bathe and dress.

"We believe that the results of this study will be used to change the prescribing practices in the United States and probably many other parts of the world," Dr. Leon Thal of the University of California at San Diego said.

Sano led a team that followed 341 patients with moderately severe Alzheimer's symptoms over two years. The patients were divided into groups that were treated with a placebo, selegiline, vitamin E and a combination of the two drugs.

The placebo group lagged behind the other three. Those other three groups were statistically similar in slowing the effects of Alzheimer's, the researchers said. The combination group did not show a notable advantage, they found.

Edward Truschke, president of the Alzheimer's Association, which provides support and research money to combat the disease, hailed the study's results.

"We are very excited that the study showed not only that the clinical signs of disease progression can be slowed but also that, for the first time, drugs were effective with people in the moderately severe stages of the disease."

Vitamin E bottles

The researchers recommend that patients with moderately severe Alzheimer's take either high doses of vitamin E -- about 2,000 international units per day, or selegiline. But don't take a combination of the two, they advised, because it's less effective.

Both selegiline and high doses of vitamin E carry potential problems. Selegiline should not be taken with certain antidepressants and narcotics, and vitamin E may increase the risk of bleeding in some people, the researchers said.

But of the two, vitamin E is cheaper, doesn't require a prescription and presents fewer complications. Selegiline is sold by Somerset Pharmaceuticals under the brand name eldepryl.

It's not clear how vitamin E and selegiline work, although it's suspected they slow the progression of Alzheimer's by preventing oxidative damage of brain cells.

Other drugs such as tacrine have been shown to slightly improve memory and thinking in Alzheimer's patients.

Vitamin E and selegiline may allow patients with moderately severe Alzheimer's to take care of themselves longer, thus relieving some of the burden on their families.

But the researchers caution it's too early to recommend these drugs to patients at other stages of the disease.

Correspondent Eugenia Halsey and Reuters contributed to this report.  

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