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July 24, 2011

Alzheimer's and Caffeine: It's Not Just Mice

By: John Caruso

I'm taking a break from the usual futile political analysis for something that may actually help someone somewhere.  You may have heard about this news when it was published in 2009:

[The] Florida ADRC study included 55 mice genetically altered to develop memory problems mimicking Alzheimer's disease as they aged. After behavioral tests confirmed the mice were exhibiting signs of memory impairment at age 18 to 19 months – about age 70 in human years – the researchers gave half the mice caffeine in their drinking water. The other half got plain water. The Alzheimer's mice received the equivalent of five 8-oz. cups of regular coffee a day. That's the same amount of caffeine – 500 milligrams -- as contained in two cups of specialty coffees like Starbucks, or 14 cups of tea, or 20 soft drinks.

At the end of the two-month study, the caffeinated mice performed much better on tests measuring their memory and thinking skills. In fact, their memories were identical to normal aged mice without dementia. The Alzheimer's mice drinking plain water continued to do poorly on the tests.

(The PDF version of the study is here.)

My father has had progressing symptoms of dementia (not formally diagnosed as Alzheimer's, though that's been both our assumption and his doctors') for several years, and it had gotten to the point where he was so cognitively impaired that he couldn't recall the names of just about anyone other than immediate family and he was sleeping 20+ hours a day.  On my most recent trip home my mother mentioned that he'd stopped drinking coffee, but while I was there we happened to give him a few cups—and we noticed an immediate and dramatic improvement in his awareness, alertness, short-term and long-term memory, level of engagement, and many other more subtle things as well.  It was like having my old dad back.

In researching a possible connection I came across the 2009 study mentioned above, and since then we've been making sure he has at least 5 cups of coffee a day (which translates roughly into the 500mg dose mentioned in the study).  It's continued to have a dramatic effect, which we see within a few minutes—"like watching a flower open in time-lapse", as my mother said—and lasts throughout the day as we supplement the coffee dosage.  I wouldn't have believed it until I saw it happen for myself; after years of watching my father drift further and further away from us, it's nothing short of miraculous.  Luckily for us he loves coffee (that's one of the things he seemed to have forgotten), but if that ever becomes a problem we'll try adding caffeine pills to his daily pharmaceutical regimen.

So if you know someone with symptoms of dementia, try giving them caffeine, and if you know someone who knows someone with symptoms of dementia, tell them to try giving that person caffeine.  There are no guarantees that it will have the same effect it did with my dad, of course, but it's so simple and low-risk there's no reason not to try it.  Seriously: tell everyone and anyone you know who might benefit from this, because it could literally change their lives.

If you do try this I'd be very interested to hear what kind of results you see, whether positive, neutral or negative.

(A little more on my father here, if you're interested.)

MORE INFO: Here's an excerpt from the abstract for a 2002 study:

Patients with AD [Alzheimer's disease] had an average daily caffeine intake of 73.9 ± 97.9 mg during the 20 years that preceded diagnosis of AD, whereas the controls had an average daily caffeine intake of 198.7 ± 135.7 mg during the corresponding 20 years of their lifetimes (P < 0.001, Wilcoxon signed ranks test). Using a logistic regression model, caffeine exposure during this period was found to be significantly inversely associated with AD (odds ratio=0.40, 95% confidence interval=0.25–0.67), whereas hypertension, diabetes, stroke, head trauma, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, vitamin E, gastric disorders, heart disease, education and family history of dementia were not statistically significantly associated with AD. Caffeine intake was associated with a significantly lower risk for AD, independently of other possible confounding variables.

So consuming 198.7 ± 135.7 mg of caffeine a day may help you avoid Alzheimer's.

— John Caruso

Posted at July 24, 2011 05:34 PM

I work as a CNA in the dementia unit of a nursing home, and I'm sorry to report that I see no difference in the morning whether I serve our men regular coffee or decaffeinated. On our guys it doesn't even seem to have the normal stimulant effect associated with coffee.

I'm glad you found something that works for your Dad, but I don't think those results are typical, at least not for those in the advanced stages of the disease.

Posted by: Thomas at July 24, 2011 07:24 PM

Thanks for the feedback. My sister's also a CNA and she said they do try to give the dementia patients caffeine, though I didn't ask her in detail about the effects. But even if the results we've seen with my father aren't typical, we've seen very clearly that caffeine can work--and it's so easy to try that there's no reason not to. If it can help even one other person, it will have been worth posting this.

Posted by: John Caruso at July 24, 2011 07:59 PM

This is extremely interesting. Thomas, how much caffeine would patients get where you are? It seems like it's possible they may not be getting enough to test this.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at July 25, 2011 08:07 AM

I'm a medaid who works with Alzheimer's patients as well. I'm glad to hear John's father is responding so well, and caffeine is worth a shot, but I hope people will not be too disappointed if someone they doesn't respond at all. Alzheimer's is a very unpredictable disease. John is quite right to point out that there are all kinds of dementia that causes memory loss: just a stroke can cause loss of memory. So it's best to get the most definitive diagnoses as you can.

What the general population may not know is that
Alzheimer's is reaching epidemic proportions. The people who worked long in the field tell me that the disease has increased a least 8 fold in the past 25 years. Why? They speculate: This is the first elderly generation since the wide use of food preservatives and synthetic fertilizers. Or, another factor, modern medicine is causing people to live longer; that is, modern medicine is causing less degeneration to all the organs, except for the brain.

Posted by: Paul Avery at July 25, 2011 08:10 AM

My dad's cognitive problems actually started with a multiple bypass operation--he was never the same after that (which is apparently a very common reaction). So it's possible he doesn't have Alzheimer's...though as I say, the symptoms look just like it and his doctors treat it that way. I also don't know if the excessive sleep is a symptom or a cause; part of it may be that giving him caffeine is preventing him from sleeping as much, so his brain stays more active. It's difficult to disentangle these kinds of issues (but I'm sure many other people are in the same boat).

Also, I should make it clear that while it's a marked and obvious improvement in many areas he definitely still has cognitive issues--but he goes from asking which suit is trump on every single play of a card game to asking once at the beginning and remembering it throughout, for example (this for a game he's played for 70 years, by the way, so it's all but muscle memory for him).

Posted by: John Caruso at July 25, 2011 11:07 AM

John, your dad's improvement is wonderful news, and doubly great that it's cheap, safe, and non-pharmaceutical. Thanks for sharing--I'll remember it.

I smell a book deal on this topic, were you so inclined...

Posted by: Mike of Angle at July 25, 2011 01:27 PM

The brain is phenomenally complicated, and even really top-of-the-field neurologists don't understand lots of brain biochemistry. In general a medication is prescribed because it works most of the time for most similar patients according to a study that has been done and made its way to practitioners. If the med doesn't work they don't know why and just try something else. If something works, be glad for such blessings.

Alzheimers is a hard and cruel disease that wasn't good to my mother, but fortunately cancer saved us from the worst of its ravages. For me, that about sums up how nasty that disease is. I'm glad coffee is helping Caruso's dad with it, and thanks to all you folks who work with its victims. You guys are the best.

On a lighter note, I drink so much coffee that I don't even have blood, and yet . . .

Posted by: N E at July 25, 2011 01:46 PM

That's so awesome.

Posted by: Amandasaurus at July 25, 2011 01:55 PM

Cognitive impairment after heart-lung bypass use is so common it has a slang term - pumphead.

My grandmother had dementia, but her doctor thought it was due to many ministrokes. My mother's mental acuity never deteriorated because she died of cancer at an age younger than I am now. My dad did show some decline, but he lived to 96 with most of his marbles (though he did give up bridge in his last years).

I'd like to end this comment with a relevant and funny joke. You can't always get what you want.

How's your mental status?
Compared to what?

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at July 25, 2011 02:26 PM

Thanks for mentioning that, mistah charley, since I didn't know the slang and it gives higher-quality hits on Google. I've always felt conflicted about the heart surgery. At least we didn't lose my dad, but he was never the same afterward (it affected his walking as well as his mind--all at once he went from a normal stride to an old man's shuffle). But I have a friend who lost his father the night before heart surgery, so I'm thankful for the extra time we've had.

Posted by: John Caruso at July 25, 2011 03:53 PM

The nutritional supplement DMAE can also perk up someone with Dementia.

As can Tylenol. A plain olkd Tylenol tablet will help even the more advanced Alzheimer patient.

It should also be pointed out that vittamin B 12 injections can help some forms of dementia. Some elderly people no longer absorb Vitamin B 12, and the normal blood serum tests don't help doctors determine the levels available to the patient.
(Examining cere-spinal fluid tells a doctor more, but that can be so invasive it is probably more advisable just to offer the erson the B 12.)

There are more than a few documented cases of people with dementia who "came back" from that state of being, once they have ample B 12 levels, with weekly or twice mnthly B 12 shots.

Posted by: Elise Mattu at July 25, 2011 10:26 PM

The brain is the most complex replicated object we know of in the universe. It should astonish us every time something that helps one person with brain trouble helps another. Most psychoactive chemicals are tested on cats. We may not be certain whether any licensed therapeutic compound is safe for humans, but we can be confident that our cats could handle them all with aplomb.

Last year I was having strange memory troubles. One ordinary antidepressant (but not others tried before it) fixed things right up. Unfortunately I have to keep taking it.

Mistah charlie's couplet reminds me of another:
"Does this make my butt look too big?" "Too big for what?"

Posted by: Nathan Myers at July 25, 2011 11:08 PM

>thanks to all you folks who work with its victims. You guys are the best.

Appreciate that N.E. By far, most family members are gracious and grateful. They understand that CNAs and CMAs are swamped,...overworked and underpaid, and that we don't have magic wands to make everything better.

Posted by: Paul Avery at July 26, 2011 10:47 AM

one of the best comments sections i've ever read

Posted by: otto at July 30, 2011 07:33 PM