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Coconut Oil

Claim:   Coconut oil is an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

UNDETERMINED

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, January 2012]

I saw a video from CBN News that said that coconut oil was a promising treatment for alzheimer's and other diseases. It is the ketones in the coconut oil that helps.

Is this true?

 

Origins:   Alzheimer's disease is an incurable and terminal form of dementia that afflicts millions of sufferers worldwide and by 2050 is expected to affect 1 in 85 people. While some Alzheimer's patients live more than a decade after being diagnosed as having the disease, life expectancy from the onset of noticeable symptoms is usually 7 years. There are no available treatments that halt or reverse the progression of the disease. Its cause is unknown, although numerous theories abound, including one that hypothesizes the underlying mechanism is starvation of brain cells via deprivation of glucose.

Interest in the potential for coconut oil's use in combating Alzheimer's grew in the wake of an October 2011 online article and a January 2012 Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) video touting its efficacy in that regard. CBN is a fundamentalist Christian television broadcasting network in the United States begun by Pat Robertson in 1961 that is best known for the 700 Club.

Dr. Mary Newport (featured in the CBN video linked to above), author of the 2011 book Alzheimer's Disease: What If There Was a Cure?: The Story of Ketones, and the medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit of Spring Hill Regional Hospital in Florida, supports the glucose-starvation theory and postulates ketones (delivered in the form of coconut oil) provide an alternative energy source for brain cells that have lost to Alzheimer's their ability to use glucose (the brain’s chief energy source). She points to her own husband's remarkable results after having had his diet supplemented with this substance as one of the proofs of this form of treatment.

But is there any solid proof that coconut oil is an effective treatment for Alzheimer's? On his MedFriendly web site, neuropsychologist Dr. Dominic Carone uses the claim that Alzheimer's disease can be effectively treated or reversed with coconut oil as the basis for a case study on how to evaluate suspicious medical treatment claims. He proposes the application of five criteria to the analysis of such claims:
  1. Search the peer-reviewed medical literature.
  2. Evaluate the quality of peer-reviewed medical literature.
  3. Research who is promoting the treatment.
  4. Be skeptical of suspicious claims.
  5. Research what respectable organizations devoted to the condition say about the treatment.
The coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease claim fails the first criterion (and renders the second moot) because there are no peer-reviewed articles addressing research on coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Of the third criterion, Dr. Carone notes:
It is important to evaluate the person or group of people promoting the supposed treatment to determine if there are reasons to cause suspicion about the accuracy of the claims being made. Examples can include a financial conflict of interest, desire to help a loved one with the proposed treatment, or anger towards conventional medicine. Coconut oil treatment for Alzheimer's is mainly promoted by a single person (a physician) whose husband has Alzheimer's disease. This doctor is selling a book based on the claim and has published comments on a website taking personal credit for outsmarting drug companies along with apparent antipathy towards those companies that make "monopoly profits."
Of the fourth criterion, Dr. Carone notes:
The fact is that Alzheimer's disease is [currently] incurable and causes progressive degeneration of brain tissue, yet the claim is being made that coconut oil can reverse Alzheimer's disease and totally halt brain atrophy. These claims are partly based on the doctor observing changes in her husband after using the coconut oil, which leads to a subjective investment in believing the treatment will work. This is not the standard by which medication effectiveness is judged and is very far from randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled studies.
As to the fifth criterion, the Alzheimer's Association says about claims regarding coconut oil that:
Some people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers have turned to coconut oil ... A few people have reported that coconut oil helped the person with Alzheimer's, but there's never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimer's, and there's no scientific evidence that it helps.
None of this is to say that coconut oil has absolutely no value in ameliorating the progression of Alzheimer's disease, or that a dedicated individual can't possibly make a research breakthrough that has so far eluded medical science. But there is no verifiable support for coconut oil as a therapy for Alzheimer's disease outside of some non-scientific anecdotal evidence, which is a long, long way from the type of research necessary to establish it as a documented and effective treatment.

Additional information:
    NIH Alzheimers fact sheet   Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet
  (National Institutes of Health)
Last updated:  12 February 2012

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