New Canadian research suggests that a vitamin A deficiency while in the womb and as a newborn could be linked to an increased risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease decades later.
The University of British Columbia scientists behind the study warn they found this link in mice, at least.
“It could happen at a very, very early stage. We show that if you have a deprivation of vitamin A in the pregnancy stage, some of the genes or proteins related to Alzheimer’s have an increased production along with affected cells that lead to promoting Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Weihong Song, a psychiatry professor at UBC and Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer’s disease, told Global News.
“Alzheimer’s is a chronic disease so it can happen for decades. This shows some of the changes could start in the womb,” he said.
READ MORE: 5 ways to keep your brain young and healthy
The medical community is shining light on how maternal health and fetal development could alter a person’s lifelong health trajectory. Scientists have already suggested risk of diabetes and obesity later in life if babies are overweight, for example.
Canadian readers shouldn’t be alarmed though. Vitamin A deficiency is a rarity in North America but is a longstanding issue in much of the developing world.
Pregnant women in Canada don’t need to take excessive vitamin A supplements. If they’re eating a balanced diet with dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes and other fresh produce packed with vitamin A, they’re getting plenty of the nutrients needed for brain development, Song told Global News.
Previous research already warned that low levels of vitamin A could tamper with Alzheimer’s disease risk. People with dementia tend to have lower levels of that nutrient in their blood and a diet low in vitamin A increases the risk of brain-related ailments, too.
For his study, Song and his team worked with genetically-engineered mice that had vitamin A deficiencies while they were growing in the womb and as newborns. They learned that baby mice and pups lacking in this nutrient would develop severe dementias later on.
Song can’t replicate the findings in human studies because scientists can’t manipulate humans in pregnancy. Instead, he looked at correlational studies: Song’s colleagues in China studied 330 seniors in Chongqing. There, they learned that 75 per cent of those with mild or significant vitamin A deficiency had brain impairment, not necessarily Alzheimer’s.
Only 47 per cent of the group with normal vitamin A levels had the same cognitive concerns.
There is a silver lining. The researchers gave mice that needed it vitamin A supplements through their mother’s diet and in their meals as pups. They ended up developing better, hinting that “rescue” is possible.
READ MORE: 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease
With his findings in tow, Song is hoping to start a longitudinal study working with pregnant women in developing nations to monitor their vitamin A levels and their babies’ health trajectory in the subsequent years.
Song also wants to help expectant moms in impoverished nations get enough vitamin A in their diets.
His full findings were published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica.
Right now, dementia is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world. It doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone. It also has no cure or effective treatments.
About 564,000 Canadians are living with dementia. In 15 years, that number is estimated to increase by 66 per cent to 937,000, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.