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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Monday, November 12, 2007

Long-term beta carotene use may help aging brains, study suggests

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

Older men in good health who took beta carotene for about 18 years had better memory skills than similar men who took a placebo for the same length of time, a Harvard study shows.

The antioxidant, found in carrots, showed no benefit when taken for only three years, pointing to long duration as a critical factor in possibly slowing cognitive decline, which is a strong predictor of dementia.

The improvement was modest: Brain aging was delayed by about a year in men who took beta carotene long-term, author Francine Grodstein of Brigham and Women’s Hospital said in an interview. The study appears in today’s Archives of Internal Medicine.

She cautioned that it was too soon to recommend that men take beta carotene supplements. Beta carotene also has risks: Previous research has connected beta carotene to increased rates of lung cancer in smokers.

“Even though the changes that we saw are relatively modest, it is known that even modest changes in your memory can have a pretty big impact on the risk of dementia over the long term,” Grodstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said. It's the first study, she added, to find something that may help healthy people's memory.

The study followed about 6,000 men enrolled in the Physicians’ Health Study II over two time periods. They were given either 50 milligram pills of beta carotene or a placebo every other day. The first group participated for an average of 18 years and the second group for up to three years. They took tests of memory over the phone.

There was no improvement in the men who took beta carotene for the shorter time. The men who were on long-term beta carotene treatment did better, showing delays in cognitive aging of one to one and a half years, the study says.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco, says it's plausible that long-term treatment may be necessary to have an effect on a disease that takes a long time to develop. But she also suggests there may be other interpretations of the results. In particular, she notes that the study doesn’t consider whether the men who took beta carotene for 18 years, staying in the study until it's completion, might be somehow different from men who did not continue to participate in the trial.

“For the clinician, there is no convincing justification to recommend the use of antioxidant dietary supplements to maintain cognitive performance in cognitively normal adults or in those with mild cognitive impairment,” she writes.

Grodstein said being conservative is appropriate.

“We don’t want to tell people to run out and start taking it immediately,” she said. “If we keep doing the research and keep working at it, it should give people hope we are going to be able to find something to help them keep their memory.”

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:01 PM
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