Apples vs. Alzheimer's

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online. By Julie Kirkwood

STORYLOWELL -- Two or three glasses of apple juice a day could keep Alzheimer's away, according to a University of Massachusetts Lowell study -- underwritten by the apple industry.

Drinking apple juice or eating apples and the antioxidants they contain may slow the memory loss associated with aging and Alzheimer's disease, a researcher at the school announced in a press conference on campus yesterday.

In a study that began in 2002, professor Thomas Shea fed apple juice to mice who have a genetic defect that mimics Alzheimer's disease, then put them in a maze to test their memory.

"They actually improve if they have apple juice," Shea said.

Shea announced his research at a press conference on campus yesterday attended by representatives from the national apple industry. The research was paid for by $50,000 in grants from the Processed Apples Institute and U.S. Apple. The juice concentrate used in the study was donated by Veryfine of Littleton, and bottles of juice were offered to the audience at the event. Shea said he did not feel pressured to present results favorable to the apple industry because of the funding and support.

"Had there been no effect we would be reporting there was no effect," he said.

In the experiment, Shea and his colleagues added apple juice concentrate to the drinking water of mice over the course of a month, then put them in two different mazes. Mice that had the Alzheimer's-like defect were forgetful and explored the same corridors repeatedly. After drinking apple juice, their memories improved so much that they performed nearly as well normal mice. Normal mice who drank apple juice improved even more.

"It was a very profound and significant improvement in mice," Shea said.

Alzheimer's disease affects 10 percent of Americans over age 65, according to the Alzheimer's Association, a Chicago-based advocacy group. Antioxidants do not appear to cure Alzheimer's disease, Shea said, but they seem to slow the progression.

"If we could push back the onset of Alzheimer's by 10 years," he said, "you can see that would be a massive change."

The true test of whether the effect carries over into humans would be a clinical trial, in which thousands of elderly people would drink apple juice and researchers could monitor their memory loss. Such studies are expensive and labor-intensive, though, so it is not likely one will be undertaken soon.

The mice in this study did best when they drank the human equivalent of two to three 8-ounce glasses of apple juice a day, the equivalent of eating a few apples (the researchers used juice rather than whole apples because it was easier to measure and feed to the mice).

Mice who drank too much apple juice did not benefit in the experiment, and actually had trouble in the maze.

"At some point they became bloated and lethargic," Shea said.

Antioxidants -- molecules that fight the natural cell damage that occurs in the body every day -- are found in many fruits and vegetables. Scientists believe they can aid the fight against cell damage and ultimately save memory cells. In Alzheimer's patients, and in everybody as we age, brain cells lose their ability to fend off damage. Injured brain cells die and do not regenerate, leading to permanent memory loss.

Previous studies with rats involving high antioxidant fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, spinach and strawberries, have been shown to reverse age-related brain deterioration. This study on mice, Shea said, is the first to look for such benefits in apples. The results, which appear in the February issue of the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, hint that apple juice does indeed improve memory function.

The finding does not surprise Rui Hai Liu, a Cornell University professor who was not involved in the research.

"I think it's very interesting," Liu said.

Liu has studied the antioxidant effects of apples as well as strawberries, raisins, grape juice, wheat, cranberries, sweet corn, tomatoes and raspberries. Broccoli, spinach, and other green leafy vegetables are also high in antioxidants.

"I think we should recommend consumers to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables," Liu said. "Different fruits and different vegetables give you different antioxidants."

Shea agreed. He said apple juice should not be considered a magical anti-Alzheimer's drug, but rather one of many healthy foods that are likely to prevent memory loss.

"The take-home message," he said, "is it's got to be part of a balanced diet."