UW, VA study looks at fish oil to prevent Alzheimer’s disease

By Dec 9, 2017

    Kendra McIntosh is watching her father deteriorate from Alzheimer’s disease, and knows his diagnosis means she is more likely to get the memory-wasting condition. As an Air Force veteran, McIntosh has another risk factor. Veterans are thought to be more susceptible to Alzheimer’s, largely because they have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and depression. Now, a study at UW Health and Madison’s Veterans Hospital is seeing if veterans with a parental history of Alzheimer’s might be helped by a high-dose, prescription variety of a common supplement: fish oil.

    “I’ve had a really charmed life health-wise, and I would like to continue that,” said McIntosh, 53, of Madison, who is taking part in the study. Alzheimer’s “is such a tough disease to live through.”


    She is among 10 veterans so far in the study, which seeks to enroll 150 veterans ages 50 to 75. Participants undergo MRI brain scans, get spinal taps and do cognitive tests three times over 18 months, during which they take fish oil or a fake pill used as a comparison. The study will look for changes in blood flow in the brain, Alzheimer’s-related proteins in spinal fluid, and memory, said Dr. Cindy Carlsson, a geriatrician at UW Health and the VA hospital. Six million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment from the condition, a number expected to grow to 15 million by 2060, researchers reported this week. More than 560,000 veterans have Alzheimer’s, with 423,000 more cases expected by 2020.


    “Some of the things we see more in veterans are risk factors for Alzheimer’s,” Carlsson said.


    The study uses icosapent ethyl, a purified form of eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and shellfish. It is similar to but different from docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, another omega-3 fatty acid in some fish oil pills. Fish oil can lower triglycerides and cholesterol and improve blood vessel function, so it might help prevent or delay Alzheimer’s, Carlsson said. A study of people with Alzheimer’s found DHA didn’t improve their cognition, Carlsson said. Her study is using EPA in healthy people at risk for Alzheimer’s. In another study at UW and the VA, 29 healthy people whose brains show signs of risk for Alzheimer’s are receiving infusions of the drug solanezumab or a placebo to see if it can prevent symptoms.


    McIntosh, who is chaplain supervisor at UW Hospital and serves as a chaplain in the Air National Guard, hasn’t experienced any signs of Alzheimer’s. During active duty in the Air Force from 1988 to 1999, she was deployed to Saudi Arabia to enforce no-fly zones after the Persian Gulf War. With her father’s diagnosis of dementia early last year, she is at higher risk for Alzheimer’s. To stay healthy, she bicycles and works out regularly.

    “I want to keep my body active and working correctly,” she said.


    McIntosh and her sisters recently moved their parents into a nursing home near Kansas City, her hometown. Her mother, 82, had a stroke a few years ago. Her father, 87, has stopped talking and uses a wheelchair. But he still appears to recognize his daughters.

    “He’s not able to communicate with us, but it seems like he’s still in there,” she said.


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