Several researchers have found that lithium has some value in fighting dementia. The researcher Lars Kessing has published several studies showing that people taking clinical doses of lithium for bipolar disorder have a lower incidence of dementia in old age.
In 2011, another researcher, Oreste Vicentes Forlenza, reported that a year of low-dose lithium (typically around 300mg/day) slowed deterioration in people with mild cognitive impairment compared to placebo.
In an article published in the journal Current Alzheimer Research in 2013, researchers led by Marielza Andrade Nunes reported that very small doses of lithium (more than a thousand times lower than doses used to treat mood disorders) also improved mild cognitive impairment in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
In Nunes’ study, participants with Alzheimer’s disease were randomly assigned to receive either 300 micrograms of lithium daily or a placebo. Beginning at three months of treatment, those receiving the microdoses of lithium showed stable performance on a common Alzheimer’s evaluation tool that measures how well patients remember, recall information, and follow directions; while those taking placebo got worse.
This continued over the 15 months of the study, with the difference between the two groups intensifying over time—those taking placebo got worse, while those getting the microdoses of lithium remained stable.
There were no complaints of side effects from the microdoses of lithium, and participants showed no sign of impairment to their kidney or thyroid function (a risk with the higher doses of lithium used to treat bipolar disorder).
In 2015, Nunes and colleagues reported in the journal PLOS ONE that in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, mice treated with chronic low doses of lithium in their water had less memory disruption, fewer plaques in the brain, and fewer reductions in cortex and hippocampus size compared to mice given plain water.
These studies suggest that low or micro doses of lithium may be a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Much more research is needed to determine appropriate lithium dosing for the treatment of dementia or cognition problems.
In a recent study by researcher Dan V. Iosifescu and colleagues, the drug galantamine, which is used to treat dementia, did not improve cognitive function in euthymic people with bipolar disorder. The drug had done so in earlier studies. Seventy-two participants with bipolar disorder that was in remission were randomized to receive either a placebo or galantamine extended release for a period of two weeks. Doses of galantamine ranged from 8 to 24 mg/day.
The participants took several tests of attention and memory over the course of the study. After 16 weeks of treatment, those taking galantamine did not show significant improvements in functioning compared to those who received placebo.
This research was presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
Smoking, alcohol use, obesity, and diabetes aren’t just harmful to the body. They may actually lead to dementia.
Behavioral risk factors for cardiovascular disease like those listed above have been linked to reduced volume in the brain as a whole and several brain regions, including the hippocampus, precuneous, and posterior cingulate cortex. A 2015 study by researcher Kevin King and colleagues found that these reduced brain volumes are early indicators of cognitive decline.
King and colleagues analyzed data on 1,629 participants in the long-term Dallas Heart Study. Their cardiovascular risk factors were assessed when they began the study, and their brain volume and cognitive function were measured seven years later.
Alcohol use and diabetes were associated with lower total brain volumes, while smoking and obesity were linked to low volumes in the posterior cingulate cortex.
Low hippocampal volume was linked to past alcohol use and smoking, while lower precuneous volume was linked to alcohol use, obesity, and blood glucose levels.King and colleagues suggested that subtle differences in brain volumes in midlife are the first sign of developing dementia in participants who were still younger than 50 years of age.
The couch potato lifestyle common in the US may have consequences later, in the form of deficits in memory, executive functioning (including planning and execution) and processing speed.
At the 2015 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, researcher Kristine Yaffe and colleagues reported that low levels of physical activity and high rates of television viewing in young adulthood may reduce cognitive capabilities in midlife.
The Centers for Disease Control report that less than 50% of adults aged 18–64 get the recommended minimum of physical activity each week. The guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity (such as walking briskly) and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups.
Yaffe says that physical activity can protect against cognitive decline or dementia later on.
Participants in the long-term study who reported burning fewer than 300 calories per 50-minute session three times per week during two-thirds of their followup visits had worse cognition at year 25 than those participants who were more active. Those who watched more than four hours of television per day also had reduced cognition in midlife.
Yaffe stresses that exercising regularly is not just important in keeping weight down and protecting the heart, but also in protecting the brain. Regular physical activity may even prevent illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Lithium is one of the most effective medications for bipolar disorder, but it has other benefits as well. At a 2015 scientific meeting, Ronald Fieve reported that among 1021 psychiatric outpatients, 570 who received long-term lithium treatment for their psychiatric illnesses had a significantly lower likelihood of certain medical conditions compared to the other outpatients who did not receive lithium therapy. The medical conditions that lithium made less likely were seizures, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia, and heart attack.
It is not yet know how lithium decreases these medical conditions. It may be by increasing the length of telomeres. Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect them during cell replication. Telomeres get shorter with aging and with stressors or psychiatric illnesses. Lithium directly increases the enzyme telomerase, which maintains telomere length. This may be one reason lithium use provides some protection from seizures, heart attacks, and other conditions.
A change in a person’s sense of humor could be an early indicator of dementia, according to a 2015 article by Jason Warren and colleagues in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The changes can appear as early as 10 years before a diagnosis of dementia. Almost all participants who would go on to be diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia showed an increased preference for slapstick humor over satirical or absurdist compared with those who would not. In contrast, changes in sense of humor appeared in less than half of those who would go on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, indicating that changes in sense of humor may allow doctors to distinguish between different types of dementia.
The study has some limitations. It was small (48 patients) and relied on patients’ memory of what kind of humor they enjoyed 15 years earlier. More research is needed to clarify the link between changes in humor preferences and dementia.
Warren suggests that changes in humor appear before other warning signs of dementia, such as memory loss. He called humor a type of “stress test” for the brain, since getting a joke can require a quick shift in perspective.
In a talk at the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorder, researcher David Bond reported that 75% of patients in a study of first episode mania had unhealthy body mass indices (BMIs). Forty percent were overweight while thirty-five percent were obese. Higher weight was associated with greater illness severity. Bond said that in other studies obesity has been associated with less time well and a greater risk of relapse into depression.
Obese patients also had lower brain volume, worse memory, and a greater risk of developing early onset dementia compared to other patients. Those who were overweight or obese had a 35% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
In a different talk at the same meeting, researcher Roger McIntyre reported that among patients with bipolar disorder, those who were obese have greater cognitive problems and more evidence of inflammation than those who were not obese. He has seen indirect antidepressant effects and other health benefits following weight loss from bariatric surgery.
Lithium inhibits the enzyme glycogen synthase kinase 3, which has been implicated in dementia. To study whether lithium may prevent cognitive decline, researchers led by Tobias Gerhard looked at the medication histories of patients with bipolar disorder who were 50 years of age or older. In their article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, those patients who had taken lithium 301–365 days out of the previous year had substantially lower risk of dementia than those who had not taken lithium during that time. Patients who had 300 or fewer days of lithium use did not have a significant reduction in dementia risk, nor did patients who were prescribed anticonvulsant drugs.
Editor’s Note: These data are consistent with those of Lars Kessing and colleagues, which suggest that patients in Denmark who renewed their lithium prescriptions were less likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia in old age.
In 2011, Orestes V. Forlenza and colleagues also reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry that compared to placebo, a very small dose of lithium, 150 mg/day, slowed the progression of mild cognitive impairment over one year.
A decades-long study called Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging and Dementia (CAIDE) observed older participants for signs of dementia, and collected data on participants’ levels of cynical distrust, for example, the belief that others will lie or cheat for personal gain and that it’s safer not to trust anyone.
A 2014 study by Elisa Neuvonen et al. in the journal Neurology reported that after adjusting for demographic and other factors, those participants with the highest levels of cynical distrust of others were at higher risk for dementia as they aged. This relationship was not explained by depressive symptoms. The authors suggest that a positive attitude may protect the brain.
The researchers acknowledge that it is possible the distrust may be a result of brain changes leading to dementia, rather than the cause of it.
Those with the highest levels of cynical distrust were also at higher risk for death, but this association disappeared when the researchers controlled for socioeconomic factors and health behaviors such as smoking.
The researchers hope to investigate whether having a cynical attitude early in life is more robustly linked to mortality. It would be exciting to determine whether a shift to a more positive attitude earlier in life could prevent dementia.
Editor’s Note: A high level of chronic anger is associated with shorter telomeres. Telomeres sit at the end of DNA strands and shorten with each cell replication. Shorter telomeres are linked to multiple medical and psychiatric disorders. It may be that cynical distrust shortens telomeres, and is thus associated with dementia.
We’ve written before that the dietary supplement citicoline improved depression in both unipolar and bipolar patients with methamphetamine dependence, reduced cocaine use in bipolar depressed patients with cocaine dependence, and improved cognition in healthy middle-aged women. Findings from a 2013 Italian study by Gareri et al. published in Clinical Interventions in Aging suggests that citicoline improves mild vascular cognitive impairment in older adults, though the study was not randomized, so its results may not be reliable. Citicoline is a natural substance found in the brain and the liver that can also be taken as a nutritional supplement.
The study examined 349 patients over age 64 (mean age 79.9) who had memory impairment and evidence of vascular lesions in the brain (but not Alzheimer’s disease). Participants who received citicoline (500mg twice daily for 9 months) scored better on a memory examination at 3 months and at the completion of the study, while participants who did not receive citicoline performed worse on the exam. Those who received citicoline also saw some statistically non-significant improvement in mood.
The researchers believe that citicoline’s effects may also extend to Alzheimer’s dementia because citicoline contributes to the synthesis of acetylcholine. (Most Alzheimer’s drugs inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine).
Side effects were minimal, and included occasional excitability or restlessness, digestive intolerance, and headaches.