The Curcuma longa plant belongs to the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) of herbs originating in Southeast Asia. This wonder spice, better known as turmeric or curcumin, played a significant role in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
Today, researchers have discovered an abundance of useful medicinal applications for these potent curcuminoids. From treating arthritis to improving mental wellness, it seems like curcumin’s list of health benefits is endless. But, can turmeric help in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementia?
Turmeric and Alzheimer's Disease
Studies suggest that curcumin may have a positive impact on various chronic diseases linked to oxidative stress and inflammation. Among these are Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, and ulcerative colitis. Curcumin also demonstrates neuroprotective action against degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. (1, 2)
To better understand how turmeric helps Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, let’s explore each in a little more detail.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease (Dementia)?
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, although closely related, are not the same thing. There are a few distinct differences to consider.
- Dementia: This is an umbrella term that describes symptoms linked to memory loss, reduced cognitive performance, and a regression in communication skills.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: This is the most frequently occurring type of dementia. This disease worsens with time and impacts nearly every facet of language, memory, and thought processes.
Alzheimer’s disease accounts for approximately 60-80% of dementia cases. Dementia often starts slowly, and the symptoms progress over time. Brain cell damage occurs in specific regions but usually begins in the hippocampus, our center for memory and learning.
For most people, preserving cognitive performance is as simple as controlling your blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, and treating depression and anxiety. However, even this may not be enough to thwart the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for some individuals. (3)
Researchers have noticed a trend with the buildup of proteins on the interior and exterior of brain cells in Alzheimer’s patients (amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles—tau).
This impairment makes it difficult for brain cells to communicate with each other. Thus, we start to experience weakened cognitive function and the progression of various symptoms.
The evidence is also mounting, showing a connection between AD and neuroinflammation. Studies propose a link between our immune system’s aggressive response to brain trauma and neurodegeneration. Therefore, our body’s natural inflammatory process, although well-intentioned, can be a double-edged sword. (4, 5, 6)
Why Turmeric Curcumin?
The thought goes like this—if we can reduce beta-amyloid (Abeta) and tau accumulation in the brain, Alzheimer’s patients will be much better off. There may even be potential to reverse some of the damage in certain instances.
However, since chronic inflammation has emerged as an indicator of Alzheimer’s progression, we need something that can tackle both problems at once.
Significant research has shown that curcumin possesses strong anti-inflammatory properties that may improve chronic neuroinflammation. Turmeric supplements also enhance the body’s antioxidant activity, which helps reduce oxidative stress linked to amyloidosis progression.
In this post, we will assess the research surrounding curcumin’s capability to help in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Turmeric for Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Can Curcumin Help Neurodegeneration?
Once the deposition of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles occurs, things can get ugly pretty quickly. The protein clusters trigger an inflammatory response in the brain, and so the cycle begins.
Globally, there are over 1000 published studies testing the effects of curcumin on various diseases. In Alzheimer’s patients, many studies point to a similar conclusion—turmeric can reduce inflammation, beta-amyloid plaque buildup, and oxidative damage related to AD. (7)
The first study we’ll review examined the effects of 90 mg of curcumin taken twice daily in a group of 40 non-demented adults (age 51–84 years). This 18-month trial was double-blind and placebo-controlled using a highly bioavailable form of curcumin with excellent absorption.
The results showed that turmeric led to significant improvements in the brain regions associated with mood and memory. Researchers believe the benefits in cognitive performance derive from curcumin’s ability to decrease amyloid and tau accumulation. (8)
Another study analyzed the macrophages (white blood cells that handle cellular debris) of six AD patients. The tests measured beta-amyloid (Abeta) uptake with and without the addition of curcuminoids.
Following curcuminoid treatment, there was significant Abeta uptake by macrophages in 50% of the patients’ white blood cells. The result suggests turmeric may be a safe approach for the clearance of amyloidosis in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. (9, 10)
The next study described a small sample size of three patients with Alzheimer’s disease whose symptoms improved substantially as a result of turmeric supplementation. Pre-treatment, each person exhibited severe Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia (BPSD) and noticeable cognitive decline.
After a 12-week treatment period, one of the patients scored markedly higher in the laboratory data tests used to assess the efficacy of turmeric. While all three patients benefited from curcumin, two of the AD sufferers needed some extra time to yield results. After one year of taking turmeric capsules, the other two patients were able to recognize their families again. (11)
Further research in vivo tested turmeric’s capacity to reduce beta-amyloid accumulation on the brains of mice. The study showed that curcumin effectively suppressed oxidative damage, reduced inflammation, and limited protein build up in the mice. In this trial, turmeric was a more effective Abeta aggregation inhibitor than both naproxen and ibuprofen. (12)
So far, we’ve established that the antioxidant activity and anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric can help in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. It appears that cholesterol may also have an impact on beta-amyloid deposition in the brains of AD patients.
Medications that inhibit cholesterol synthesis can decrease the risk of developing AD. One study used 500 mg of curcuminoids per day for a short 7-day period and successfully lowered lipid peroxide and serum cholesterol levels in healthy volunteers. This result suggests a third mechanism by which turmeric can benefit Alzheimer’s. (13)
Traditional nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) may reduce AD symptomology and prevent further development with long-term use. Another animal study reinforced the idea that curcumin can serve a similar purpose and complement the use of NSAIDs in treating AD.
The study showed a substantial 43-50% decrease in beta-amyloid plaque in the tested mice. (14)
Final Thoughts on Turmeric for Alzheimer’s Prevention
Can turmeric supplements help dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? The answer appears to be, yes, and with minimal side effects. Keep in mind; curcumin is not a cure or a guaranteed preventive treatment for AD. However, there is a convincing amount of research to suggest that turmeric can help in the fight against Alzheimer’s with the proper dosage.
Curcumin has several different methods to assist the body in its battle against AD. Curcuminoids help beta-amyloid plaque clearance by enhancing antioxidant capacity, lowering cholesterol levels, and by reducing neuroinflammation. (15)
If you or a loved one experience early signs of dementia, consult with a doctor or medical professional to see if curcumin is right for you.