Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and devastating neurodegenerative disorder that leads to memory loss and confusion. Although its exact causes are still being researched, it’s believed that the condition develops after the protein amyloid-beta begins to “clump” in the brain, forming plaques that disrupt cell function.
Because there are no effective disease-modifying treatments currently available for Alzheimer’s, drugs and other approaches — such as nutritional supplements, or nutraceuticals — designed to stop or slow disease progression have become a focus of ongoing research. Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, is an example of a nutraceutical, and it’s one of the few for which several studies have evaluated its potential role in Alzheimer’s.
“Curcumin has been tested in older people and found to improve attention and working memory in middle-aged people and adults without dementia,” says Ashok K. Shetty, PhD, the associate director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station.
“It appears to be safe, well-tolerated, and seems to have several beneficial effects. Overall, curcumin appears to be a promising,” Dr. Shetty says.
What Is Turmeric?
Turmeric is a plant related to ginger that’s grown in Asia and Central America, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Historically, the root has been used in cooking — particularly in India — as well as in medicine, primarily in southern Asia. It has been used to treat breathing problems, rheumatic diseases like arthritis, pain, and fatigue, the NIH says.
These days, turmeric remains a commonly used spice in cooking (including as a main ingredient in curry powder), but it’s also used as a dietary supplement to treat a number of health conditions, including inflammation and skin problems. And it’s one of the few herbal remedies for which there’s some scientific evidence supporting its safety and effectiveness in the treatment of certain disorders — including Alzheimer’s disease.
How Turmeric May Help Brain Function
To date, most research agrees that turmeric in general, and curcumin specifically, has anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s this ability to address inflammation that makes it a possible treatment option for various forms of dementia. Animal studies have revealed that the herb reduces inflammation in the brain and also slows the development of amyloid plaques, although exactly how it exerts these effects isn’t well understood.
A study published in March 2018 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that in adults between ages 51 and 84 without Alzheimer’s, a supplement called Theracurmin — containing 90 milligrams, or about a quarter of a teaspoon, of curcumin — taken twice daily improved memory and cognitive function.
However, whether curcumin can “reverse” Alzheimer’s disease remains to be seen, Shetty says. Clinical studies are ongoing.
What to Know Before You Take Turmeric Supplements
Turmeric and curcumin are widely available as dietary and nutritional supplements. The plant’s underground stems (rhizomes) are typically dried and made into capsules, tablets, teas, or extracts.
The fact that they are commercially available means that a doctor’s prescription isn’t required to try them. Still, Shetty emphasizes that you should consult your doctor before trying any supplement.
Although turmeric and curcumin are generally safe, when taken in large amounts, they can cause gastrointestinal side effects. The supplement used in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry study was designed specifically to avoid these side effects, Shetty notes.
“It’s essential to check with the physician or neurologist before starting curcumin, mainly because it may interact with other drugs you may be taking,” he says.