Can vitamin supplements and herbals slow memory loss due to Alzheimer's disease?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Fish oil, Saint-John's-wort, saw palmetto, vitamin C -- if there's a vitamin or herbal supplement out there, my health-conscious mom has taken it. It was a big blow when my dad was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at 67. But Mom believes the right pills will slow his memory loss. Can vitamins and supplements improve memory?

Expert Answer

Maria Caserta is a geriatric psychiatrist and the associate director of the Memory Center at the University of Chicago.

No vitamin or herb can improve his memory. Nor can they stop the memory loss. Certain vitamins and prescription drugs, a good diet, exercise, and continuing mental stimulation -- all those things together could be helpful in retaining memory longer, however.

There's some evidence that B vitamins, vitamin E, and vitamin C may help slow memory loss, though the effect appears to be minimal and long-term studies have not been done. But your mom should not give your dad any kind of supplement without talking to his primary care doctor, who will know what medications he's taking and how they interact with supplements. High doses of certain vitamins can interfere with medications or cause side effects. For example, if he's on a blood thinner such as Coumadin, taking a lot of vitamin E is not suggested because vitamin E also thins the blood.

If he's not already taking a general multivitamin, I might suggest taking one -- but your parents should show it to his doctor first. The doctor can also advise whether your dad has some dietary deficiency and needs more of a specific vitamin.

Unfortunately, as far as herbals go, reliable studies haven't shown any to be effective in slowing memory loss