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Alzheimer’s is the most common disease of the nervous system that affects the elderly, costing the US billions of dollars. The available drug treatments can’t improve memory or other dementia symptoms; they can only slow down their rate of progression. Many people have heard about coconut oil for memory loss and other Alzheimer’s symptoms and wonder about its effectiveness. Are the stories about coconut oil and dementia purely anecdotal or is there actual research to back up the claims?
Although no published human clinical trials have yet examined whether coconut oil improves memory or symptoms of Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, a study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health is currently underway at the University of South Florida.
Meanwhile, the results of some small human studies of Alzheimer’s patients have shown that a supplement containing medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), the same unique types of fats contained in coconut oil, helped patients to stabilize or even improve with respect to memory and the ability to carry out activities of daily living.[2,3,5]. If you have ever been a caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient, you know how significant this is.
Quick Facts About Coconut Oil and the Brain
Coconut oil contains a high amount of saturated fat in the form of MCTs. The fatty acids found in MCTs, which are called medium-chain fatty acids because of their chain length of 6 to 12 carbon atoms, include caprylic acid, capric acid, and lauric acid. Coconut oil contains almost 60% caprylic, capric, and lauric acids. When these fatty acids from MCTs break down inside the body, substances called ketones, such as beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetoacetate, are formed. When the brain can’t get enough energy from glucose, as is the case in Alzheimer’s, it can use ketones as an alternative.
Ketone levels can be measured in body fluids. Taking 20-30 grams per day, in divided doses, of an MCT supplement has been shown to mildly and safely increase the body’s ketone levels and to contribute up to 8% to 9% of the brain’s energy.  Other ways to induce the formation of ketones inside the body, besides consuming medium chain triglycerides, include starvation or eating a very low-carbohydrate/low-protein/high-fat diet. Exactly how much coconut oil must be consumed to elevate ketone levels in the brain is currently not known.
Upcoming Study on Coconut Oil and Dementia
The NIH-funded study currently going on at the University of South Florida is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial designed to determine the effect of taking coconut oil on the cognition, functioning, and behavior of older adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. The 65 participants take a 1-ounce drink three times daily for 3 months. The drink is a proprietary blend of coconut and medium-chain triglyceride oils manufactured by Cognate Nutritionals, called Fuel for Thought™ or a placebo. After three months, the subjects will switch treatments and start on the opposite treatment for another 3 months.
Previous Studies on MCTs in Coconut Oil and Alzheimer’s Disease
Another supplement that has previously been studied and is currently designated as a prescription-only “medical food” by the FDA is Axona®. Axona® is a powder that contains some ingredients from coconut oil, medium chain triglycerides, and several other ingredients. Axona® was studied in human, double-blind, placebo controlled trials to determine safety, side effects, and improvements on memory and cognition in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. Data from these trials suggest that MCTs improve cognition in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.[2,3,5] However, one caveat is that MCTs only appear to be significantly efficacious in patients who do NOT have the APOE4 genetic variant; Axona® was not significantly effective in patients who tested positive for the APOE4 gene, which has been shown to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s. The study currently being conducted at the University of South Florida is testing the APOE4 status of all the participants to clarify this.
What to Do if You Want to Try Coconut Oil for Memory Loss associated With Dementia
If you want to try coconut oil, try virgin coconut oil which is obtained from fresh, mature coconut without the use of heat and without undergoing refining process. This retains important antioxidant vitamins and other anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in the oil and has been shown to be more healthful than non-virgin coconut oil in terms of benefiting cholesterol and triglyceride levels, inducing weight loss, improving bone density, increasing antioxidant status, and reducing inflammation.[6,7] It may be more beneficial than standard coconut oil for dementia as well. At this point in time, the exact amount of coconut oil needed to exert beneficial effects on Alzheimer’s symptoms is not known. However, given what is known about the medium chain fatty acid content of coconut oil and the amount of medium chain triglycerides generally used in studies, approximately 2-3 tablespoons per day may be an effective dose for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.