- Taking a daily multivitamin may help slow age-related memory loss in older adults.
- The findings suggest that supplementing with multivitamins may be a "simple and inexpensive way" to help slow age-related cognitive decline.
- Experts stress, however, that multivitamins should not take the place of a nutritious, balanced diet.
Taking a daily multivitamin may help maintain memory in older adults during the aging process, new research suggests, potentially providing a “safe, accessible, and affordable” way to protect cognitive health.
The study, published earlier this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that when adults over age 60 took a multivitamin each day, they did significantly better on memory tests, compared to adults who took a placebo. Researchers estimated that adults who took a multivitamin saw 3.1 fewer years of memory loss, compared to the placebo group.
“Most older adults are worried about memory changes that occur with aging,” Lok-Kin Yeung, PhD, first author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in Columbia University’s Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, said in a news release. “Our study suggests that supplementation with multivitamins may be a simple and inexpensive way for older adults to slow down memory loss.”
Though the study offers positive evidence on multivitamins’ impact on cognition—especially since it’s the second recent study to do so—researchers maintain that use of multivitamins shouldn’t be the only source of support for brain health.
“Supplementation of any kind shouldn’t take the place of more holistic ways of getting the same micronutrients,” Adam Brickman, PhD, study co-author and professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a news release. “Though multivitamins are generally safe, people should always consult a physician before taking them.”
Here’s what to know about the new research, and what to consider before starting a multivitamin.
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Multivitamin Use and Memory
Most American adults and about one-third of children take some sort of dietary supplement or multivitamin-mineral, research shows—and while supplementing with a multivitamin is typically done to promote overall health, it’s unclear what sort of impact multivitamin use has on cognition.
To look into the effects of multivitamin supplementation on memory in older adults, researchers recruited more than 3,500 adults age 60 or older to take a daily multivitamin supplement—specifically Centrum Silver, donated by Pfizer, Inc.—or placebo for three years.
Participants were also instructed to take a series of web-based tests each year to measure short-term memory and cognition over the course of the three years.
By the end of the first year, researchers found that adults who took a daily multivitamin performed better on the memory tests, compared to adults who took a placebo—and those benefits were maintained over the course of the three year study.
Compared to the placebo group, researchers estimated that adults in the multivitamin group saw about three fewer years of age-related memory decline. Memory retention, executive function, or novel object recognition, however, did not appear to be affected by multivitamin supplementation.
The new study (COSMOS-Web) is part of a larger clinical trial—the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS)—led by Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard University. Another recent COSMOS study, COSMOS-Mind, led to similar results: Among a study population of more than 2,000 participants, researchers identified multivitamin-mineral supplementation over the course of three years “improved global cognition, episodic memory, and executive function in older adults.”
Notably, in both COSMOS studies, the benefits of multivitamin use were greater for adults with cardiovascular disease, though it’s unclear why.
“There is evidence that people with cardiovascular disease may have lower micronutrient levels that multivitamins may correct,” Dr. Brickman said in a news release, “but we don’t really know right now why the effect is stronger in this group.”
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Though the new study shows that multivitamin use may have positive cognitive benefits, further research is needed to understand why. “[The study] was not designed to test specific mechanisms,” Dr. Brickman told Health; researchers also did not look into which specific components of multivitamins were helpful.
However, “subtle changes in micronutrient levels or absorption that occur with normal aging might contribute to some of the memory changes typically seen with age,” Dr. Brickman said. “Multivitamins can potentially supplement or restore some of these declining levels and have a subsequent impact on thinking abilities.”
Because multivitamins are readily available, affordable, and generally safe, they may be a viable addition for many people, according to Hailey Crean, MS, RDN, founder of Hailey Crean Nutrition, LLC. “A multivitamin can help [people] meet daily micronutrient needs that may be missing or low in the diet,” Crean told Health.
But people should still proceed with caution when considering taking a multivitamin—that includes talking with their healthcare provider before starting any new supplement, and being aware that supplements sold in the U.S. are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and thus are not as closely monitored as prescription medications.
“As a result, I recommend choosing a supplement brand that is third-party tested to ensure what is listed on the label is actually what is found din the product and in the listed amount,” Crean said.
It should be noted too that multivitamins, when used, should only be a small portion of a person’s diet. “A multivitamin is more of a safety net and not a replacement for nutrients from food,” Kelsey Kunik, RDN and nutrition advisor for Zenmaster Wellness, told Health.
In this case, people should continue to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and other whole foods. Additionally, regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress management, and maintaining social connection can contribute to brain health support too, and these factors should not be ignored.