Adding a multivitamin to your daily routine could help keep your brain sharp as you age, a recent study suggests, though experts caution that additional research is needed before any health recommendations are made.
A team of researchers from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, tested whether daily administration of cocoa extract versus a placebo and a multivitamin-mineral versus a placebo could improve cognition in more than 2,200 adults 65 and older over the course of three years.
Results from the randomized controlled trial — which is considered the gold standard of study designs when evaluating a treatment or intervention — surprised the researchers, according to lead author Laura Baker, a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
The cocoa extract — rich in compounds called flavonols that have been linked to better brain health — had no impact on cognition, according to the study, published Sept. 14, 2022, in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia. The adults who were randomly assigned to take a daily multivitamin, however, saw a statistically significant improvement — one that translated to a 60 percent slowing of cognitive decline (or a 1.8-year delay). The benefits were greatest in adults with cardiovascular disease.
Second supplement study yields similar results
A second study published May 24, 2023, in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed similar results. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Columbia University randomized more than 3,500 participants age 60 and older into two groups: a placebo group and a multivitamin group. They found that those in the multivitamin group performed better on memory tests compared with the placebo group by the equivalent of 3.1 years. Like in the previous study, the benefits appeared greatest among those with cardiovascular disease.
“The findings are promising and certainly set the stage for important follow-up studies about the impact of multivitamin supplementation on cognition,” Columbia University’s Adam Brickman, who co-led the study, said in a news release.
“Most older adults are worried about memory changes that occur with aging. Our study suggests that supplementation with multivitamins may be a simple and inexpensive way for older adults to slow down memory loss,” added Lok-Kin Yeung, another author on the study.
The researchers write that additional studies are needed to identify the specific nutrients that may be providing the benefit and to determine if the findings can be generalized to a diverse population.
Not a treatment for dementia
Baker cautions that the study does not suggest a multivitamin can prevent or cure dementia, a cluster of conditions that affect more than 55 million people worldwide. However, if additional research confirms the findings, it could be “a layer of protection against [cognitive] decline,” going hand in hand with other habits that can protect the brain, like regular physical activity and a healthy diet.
Plus, it’s an intervention that’s inexpensive, accessible and familiar to most Americans. Research from AARP shows that nearly 8 in 10 (78 percent) adults 50 and older take a vitamin or dietary supplement.
“This study aims to answer a basic question many of us have asked: Are we missing a simple opportunity to improve cognition on a mass scale? This is truly a pragmatic public health study,” Anna Nordvig, a neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at the Memory Disorders Clinic at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medicine, wrote in an email to AARP.
She points out, however, that while the multivitamin effects are measurable, they are still small. What’s more, the research doesn’t answer why or how a multivitamin might be able to slow cognitive decline. “Thus, no simple solution emerges,” notes Nordvig, who wasn’t involved in the study.