India’s population is just over one billion people, more than three times the population of the United States. Yet, Alzheimer’s disease is virtually nonexistent there, whereas it affects half of Americans over age 85. In fact, elderly residents of rural India have the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the world. So what’s their secret? It just might be curcumin.
Curcumin comes from turmeric (Curcuma longa), the spice that gives curry its deep yellow color. A member of the ginger family, turmeric is ubiquitous in India, where the majority of the world’s supply is produced and consumed.
It has long been used for its flavor (it is added to nearly every Indian dish) and for food preservation, because it contains potent antioxidants that inhibit spoilage. Dietary levels of curcumin are higher in India than anywhere else in the world, and exponentially higher than in the U.S., where the spice is hardly used at all.
While it is impossible to conclude from population studies alone that curcumin is responsible for India’s low rates of Alzheimer’s disease, there are other reasons for making the correlation. Several studies over the last few years have shown that the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is associated with a greatly reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, presumably because the drugs reduce the buildup of inflammatory compounds in the brain.
Curcumin is known to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, so researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles conducted a study to find out if it could provide the same anti-Alzheimer’s benefits as NSAIDs—but without the gastrointestinal, liver, and kidney damage linked to the drugs.
Middle-aged and older mice were fed either a standard diet or the same diet with small or large doses of curcumin for six months. All the mice received injections of amyloid (a protein in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s) to mimic the disease. Compared to the mice on the standard diet, the curcumin-fed animals scored much higher on maze-based memory tests and exhibited no symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
At the end of the study, biopsies showed that the mice on the curcumin diets had not only dramatic reductions in amyloid and other markers of inflammation in the brain, but also substantially less oxidative damage.
- You can enjoy the health (and taste!) benefits of curcumin by adding a little spice to your life. Eat Indian food and use turmeric when cooking meals at home.
- If you prefer to take supplemental curcumin (often called turmeric extract), aim for 1,400 to 1,800 mg per day. For improved absorption, look for a product containing bromelain or piperine.