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Daily Multivitamins May Help Aging Brains

Research suggests a daily multivitamin could help protect against memory loss, but a healthy diet is still key

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Tom Schierlitz / Trunk Archive

Adding a multivitamin to your daily routine could have some brain perks, accumulating evidence suggests. 

In a study, published Jan. 18 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers tested the effects of a daily multivitamin on cognitive changes in 573 participants 60 and older. Compared with a placebo, a daily multivitamin had beneficial effects on thinking, reasoning and memory, they found.

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This study is the third in a series of randomized clinical trials — the gold standard of studies — under the larger COSMOS (Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study) research initiative, which is investigating the effects of multivitamins and cocoa flavonols on various age-related conditions, including brain health. The results of all three studies have been similar, and taken together, the findings show that a multivitamin slowed declines in reasoning and memory by about two years, compared with a placebo.

“Cognitive decline is among the top health concerns for most older adults,” Chirag Vyas, lead author on the latest study in the trio of trials and an instructor in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a news release. There’s potential for a daily multivitamin to be “an appealing and accessible approach to slow cognitive aging,” he said. 

In the first study, 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. 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 in 2022 in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia. The adults who were randomly assigned to take a daily multivitamin saw a statistically significant improvement — one that translated to a 60 percent slowing of cognitive decline (or a nearly two-year delay in brain aging, meaning they tested as well as someone two years younger would be expected to perform on the tests). 

In the second study, researchers randomized more than 3,500 participants 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 and delayed memory changes by the equivalent of slightly more than three years. The results were published in 2023 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“The finding that a daily multivitamin improved memory and slowed cognitive aging in three separate placebo-controlled studies in COSMOS is exciting and further supports the promise of multivitamins as a safe, accessible and affordable approach to protecting cognitive health in older adults,” JoAnn Manson, M.D., COSMOS colead and chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a news release.

Not a dementia treatment

Laura Baker, a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and the lead author on the first of the three studies, cautions that the research does not suggest a multivitamin can prevent or cure dementia, a cluster of conditions that affect more than 55 million people worldwide.

However, it could be “a layer of protection against [cognitive] decline,” going hand in hand with other habits that can protect the brain, including 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 80 percent of adults 50 and older take a vitamin or dietary supplement.


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Still, the study’s authors say more research is needed — including among a more diverse population — to understand why or how a multivitamin may protect against memory loss and cognitive decline.

One explanation could be the modern diet. “Although we are well-fed, we are not necessarily well-nourished with the essential micronutrients that we need for brain health,” Baker says, pointing to the prevalence of processed foods in the American diet.

A 2022 study published in the journal Neurology found that the consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to a higher risk of dementia in adults 55 and older. Research shows that roughly 60 percent of our calories come from ultra-processed foods — your packaged snacks and frozen dinners.

On the other hand, a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables is linked to better brain health, says a report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

“Our hypothesis is that [many] Americans — because of our culture, our comfort foods, the way that we consume foods — are, at the very least, in a suboptimum state [of nourishment],” Baker says. What a multivitamin may be able to do, she adds, is bump that level up to optimum. “And we know that for brain health, even a small change can make a huge difference in how well those cells function in the brain.”

Focus on your diet, talk to your doctor

Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy and brain health at AARP, says with this latest research, we’re beginning to get enough quality evidence on the effects of multivitamins on brain health for older adults to sit up and take notice. However, she says, “we still want to first recommend adults eat a brain- and heart-healthy diet, because that is where we have the most evidence of benefit.”

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According to GCBH research, berries, leafy greens, healthy fats — such as extra virgin olive oil — and seafood are all considered brain-healthy foods.

If you are interested in supplementing with a multivitamin, talk to your doctor first, Lock says. “You want to determine if you have a vitamin deficiency, and you want to know whether taking a multivitamin might impact other medications you are taking or pose other health issues.” Just like any other pill or potion, supplements can cause side effects and can interact with other medications, including common treatments such as blood thinners and cholesterol drugs.

Take care of your brain

There are some other things you can do to take care of your brain.

If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, make sure your doctor is “aggressive” in helping you manage those conditions, Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told AARP. Research shows that high blood pressure can raise your risk for issues with thinking and memory.

Lyketsos recommends staying active, both socially and physically. Move as much as you can throughout the day and aim for 2½ hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, plus a few days of strength training, the GCBH recommends.

Other tips: Cut back on alcohol and find healthy ways to manage stress, Anna Nordvig, a neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at the Memory Disorders Clinic at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medicine, told AARP.

“A life balance that stimulates, empowers and fulfills you are all wonderful to preserve brain health,” Nordvig adds.

Editor's note: This story, originally published Sept. 15, 2022, has been updated to include the results of new research.

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