April 26, 2012

Update on Coconut Oil as Remedy for Alzheimer's

Back in February, I reviewed recent reports that the ketones in coconut oil slowed the progress of Alzheimer's in some people, and may actually prevent the disease. That posting generated far and away the most traffic of anything I've put up on this blog. Obviously I'm not alone in my fear of this horrific disease.

Now, very belatedly I fear, I decided to check this coconut oil claim out further. (In my original posting, I just referenced a debate by others over the evidence supporting this claim.)

In my blog post, I showed a video featuring Dr. Mary Newport, the medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit of the Spring Hill Regional Hospital in Florida, who supports the theory that ketones (delivered in the form of coconut oil) provide an alternate energy source for brain cells that have lost to Alzheimer's their ability to use glucose (the brain's chief energy source). Dr. Newport's husband has Alzheimer's, and in the video she supports the supplement's efficacy with his remarkable results after starting to use coconut oil.

I made a stupid error in introducing Dr. Newport's video by saying it was a CBS News video. WRONG! It's a CBN video, not a CBS video. CBN is the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Christian fundamentalist network founded by Pat Robertson in 1961 now better know as the 700 Club.

Needless to say, I'm very embarrassed that this error appears in the post that has generated the most traffic on my blog.

So How Valid Is This Coconut-Oil-and-Alzheimer's Theory?

My extensive research found a small research study, involving 20 older adults with memory disorders and the use of ketone supplements. It concluded that enhanced ketone values were associated with improved memory. A 2008 review of the literature characterized ketone bodies as therapy as "a promising new area of AD research" for Alzheimer's.

But what about Dr. Newport's report? Turns out she is the author of a 2011 book, Alzheimer's Disease: What If There Was a Cure?: The Story of Ketones.

It also turns out that these claims involving coconut oil and Alzheimer's were used by Dr. Dominic Carone, a neuropsychologist and blogger, as the basis for a case study on "Five Ways To Evaluate Suspicious Medical Claims."  Here's his five-point checklist:
  1. Search the peer-reviewed medical literature.
  2. Evaluate the quality of the peer-reviewed literature.
  3. Research who is promoting the treatment.
  4. Be skeptical of suspicious claims.
  5. Research what respectable organizations devoted to the condition say about the treatment.
The small study and literature review that I mentioned earlier dealt only with ketones, not coconut oil. In checking for peer-reviewed literature on any claim, Dr. Carone recommends starting (and ending) with NIH's PubMed (which is my jumping off point for medical research as well). PubMed shows no peer-reviewed literature, so the coconut oil / Alzheimer's claim fails Dr. Carone's first criteria and renders the second one moot.

Moreover, Dr. Carone adds this warning about using hydrogenated coconut oil::
However, there was an article published by Granholm and colleagues in 2008 showing that a diet high in hydrogenated coconut oil (which contains harmful transfats not found in organic coconut oil) in rats can profoundly impair memory and the structure of the hippocampus (the main part in the brain responsible for memory). Strike 1 against coconut oil, at least the hydrogenated type.
As for the third criteria, Dr. Carone notes:
It is important to evaluate the person or group of people promoting the supposed treatment to determine if there are reasons to cause suspicion about the accuracy of the claims being made. Examples can include a financial conflict of interest, desire to help a loved one with the proposed treatment, or anger towards conventional medicine. Coconut oil treatment for Alzheimer’s is mainly promoted by a single person (a physician) whose husband has Alzheimer’s disease. This doctor is selling a book based on the claim and has published comments on a website taking personal credit for outsmarting drug companies along with apparent antipathy towards those companies that make “monopoly profits.”
Moving on to the fourth criteria, Dr. Carone says:
As a general rule, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. A good example is a claim that an incurable disease can be cured with the proposed treatment. The fact is that Alzheimer’s disease is incurable and causes progressive degeneration of brain tissue, yet the claim is being made that coconut oil can reverse Alzheimer’s disease and totally halt brain atrophy. These claims are partly based on the doctor observing changes in her husband after using the coconut oil, which leads to a subjective investment in believing the treatment will work. This is not the standard by which medication effectiveness is judged and is very far from the randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled studies mentioned above. Strike 3 against coconut oil.
As for the fifth and final criteria, here's what the Alzheimer's Association has to say about the claims regarding coconut oil:
A few people have reported that coconut oil helped the person with Alzheimer’s, but there’s never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s, and there’s no scientific evidence that it helps.
Dr. Carone also warns that coconut oil is an ingredient in a medical food marketed for Alzheimer's disease known as Axona, but the official position of the Alzheimer’s Association is that there is no evidence that medical foods help treat this condition.

My belated research on this now has me concerned that my mistake in the original posting in attributing the video to CBS -- rather than CBN -- may have something to do with the unusually high traffic that post generated. I hope my post isn't being used to promote Dr. Newport's book.  
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