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Can a Multivitamin Give Your Brain a Boost?

Don’t rush out and stock up on supplements just yet. Experts say more research is needed.

Pill filled brain.
haryigit / getty images

Adding a multivitamin to your daily routine could help keep your brain sharp as you age, a new 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.

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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, showed the study, which was published in 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.

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.

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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 recent study published in the journal Neurology found that the consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of dementia in adults 55 and older. On the other hand, a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables has been associated with better brain health, says a report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health.

“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.”

Additional research will provide more answers

Outside experts say that while the study is well designed, the research needs to be replicated, especially since some past studies conflict with these latest results.  

In a 2019 report by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), a panel of experts considered decades worth of research on dietary supplements and brain health and concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to recommend one for improved brain health.

“Although this study is encouraging, we’ve seen many times that we need multiple studies providing evidence of safety and effectiveness before changing this recommendation,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy and brain health at AARP. “For now, older adults should eat a brain- and heart-healthy diet and talk to their doctors if they’re worried about a vitamin deficiency.” Berries, leafy greens, healthy fats (like extra virgin olive oil) and fish and seafood are all considered brain-healthy foods, GCBH research shows. 

The intervention should also be studied in a diverse population (the majority of participants were white) before broad recommendations can be made, some experts say. “It is critical that future treatments and preventions are effective in all populations,” the Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement.   

Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says a safety study should also be conducted “to be sure that there isn’t something that you weren’t expecting.” There’s always the risk of side effects, even with drugs and supplements that are sold over the counter. Prescription medications used to treat common conditions can also interact with supplements, which is why it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting one.

Tips for taking care of your brain

While we wait for the research, experts say there are a number of things you can do to help keep your brain healthy. In fact, up to 40 percent of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed if certain risk factors are managed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, make sure your doctor is “aggressive” in helping you manage those conditions, Lyketsos says. He also recommends staying active, both socially and physically. Move as much as you can throughout the day and aim for two and a half 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, Nordvig says. “A life balance that stimulates, empowers and fulfills you are all wonderful to preserve brain health,” she adds.

And when mealtime comes around, make sure the food on your plate is “colorful” — think leafy greens and bright berries — not beige or brown, Baker says.

Experts don’t expect any eventual cure for dementia to come in the form of a single pill — be it a multivitamin or a breakthrough drug. The Alzheimer’s Association says it “envisions a future where there are multiple treatments available that address the disease in multiple ways — like heart disease and cancer — and that can be combined into powerful combination therapies in conjunction with brain-healthy guidelines for lifestyle factors like diet and physical activity.”