January 14, 2013

Coconut Oil Update: Newport and Robertson Return, New Voices Speak

A major thread running through my 2012 blog posts was an examination of the claims for coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease (AD). These claims, which have created huge interest, had their origins in a video promoted by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network that featured Dr. Mary Newport, a Florida clinician who described the dramatic improvement in her husband's Alzheimer's symptoms after she began giving him daily doses of coconut oil.

I posted about the original Newport/Robertson video last February, but unfortunately didn't check the claims being made. I later added several posts on the lack of scientific evidence for these claims, culminating in a here's the bottom line post in October. I thought this quote from the Spring/Summer 2012 Research Update of the Alzheimer's Association summed it up well:
Every day we hear magical claims of products promising relief. Coconut oil, for example, is touted by a physician in Florida as having a miraculous impact on her husband. While the ketones in coconut oil are being widely studied for dementia and are a key ingredient in an FDA-approved food product for memory loss, there is no scientific evidence that coconut oil helps with Alzheimer’s. 
The coconut oil promise has been around for more than three years. If the administration of coconut oil was, indeed, beneficial, it would be shouted from every mountaintop. (emphasis is mine).
The Return of the Hucksters
Now Pat Robertson has started 2013 with a new report (video below) on Dr. Newport's claims. Robertson reports that 5 million viewers watched the original CBN report, making it the network's most-watched report in 2012.

This report at least mentions that the claims are only anecdotal, without supporting scientific evidence. This caveat is easy to miss because the rest of the report makes it sound like coconut oil is a new miracle. The CBN medical reporter even says she thinks "the Lord is behind" the discovery of the wonders of coconut oil.

Most importantly, the new Robertson/CBN report mentions that a research project on coconut oil and Alzheimer's is finally underway. It is being conducted by the respected Byrd Alzheimer's Research Institute in
Tampa, Florida. My initial web search didn't produce much information about the study, so I sent an email to Dr. Dave Morgan, Byrd Institute study leader, to learn more.

Here's the recent Robertson video:

Dr. Newport says in this new video that she's received 220 messages, mostly from caregivers, providing additional anecdotal support for using coconut oil to treat Alzheimer's. That number seems low, since the claim has been widely publicized for several years and undoubtedly tried by tens of thousands of people. Is it really possible that over five million people watched this video (on CBN alone) and only 220 have provided positive anecdotal responses?

A recent lengthy and balanced report on coconut oil and AD in the UK's Daily Mail online quoted Professor  Robert Howard as warning:
There is a huge placebo response in Alzheimer's. It's a remitting and relapsing disease, so there are often times when things seem to be getting better. 
It is important to protect patients from false hope and not expose them to quackery. I'm not sure there's a problem with glucose getting into the brain cells but if I were to follow that line I think an existing diabetes drug like metformin would be a better bet than coconut oil.  
All sorts of things can help patients feel better -- music, massage, having a kitten. If people believe coconut oil improves symptoms, it probably won't do any harm.
Recent Interview with  Dr. Newport
Here's an updated report from Dr. Newport:

Bottom Line for Me
The comment from the Alzheimer's Association sums it up for me. If there was anything to the claim that coconut oil can dramatically improve Alzheimer's symptoms, we should be seeing many more reports of its success.

Still, I'm glad that a scientific placebo-controlled study is underway.

I only wish the same could be done for curcumin, for which thousands of scientific studies have shown its potential for treating Alzheimer's and many other diseases.

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