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Can a Daily Multivitamin Improve Cognition in Older Adults?

Multicolored and shaped pills and vitamins in a pile on a blue fabric background.

Multivitamins may help brain function

Remember as you were growing up your Mom always asking “Did you take your vitamins?”

A new study shows Mom was pretty smart to worry about that multivitamin. 

Researchers at Wake Forest University, in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, have found that taking a daily multivitamin might be associated with improved brain function in older adults.  In addition, the benefits appear to be greater in folks with a history of cardiovascular disease.

“We are excited because our findings have uncovered a potentially simple, accessible, safe and inexpensive intervention that could have the potential to provide a layer of protection against cognitive decline,” said Laura Baker, PhD, Professor of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at Wake Forest University Medical Center.

However, Baker and her team are not ready to recommend that older adults start adding a daily multivitamin to their diet based on this study alone. 

Unexpected findings

Scientists analyzed cognitive function amongst three groups of older adults who were assigned to take either a cocoa extract supplement containing flavonoids, a multivitamin, or a placebo every day for three years. No one, not even the research teams, knew who was assigned to which daily routine until the results were revealed. 

“I was shocked at the findings,” adds Baker, "because we thought the cocoa extract would show benefits for cognition, based on other studies that show cocoa benefits cardiovascular health." The data showed it was the multivitamin that benefitted cognition. 

The study included 2,262 people, 65 and older. During the three-year period of the study, participants completed tests over the phone annually to evaluate their cognitive function. They were tested on how well they recalled stories, performed number tests, and showed verbal fluency. 

The test results were compared between those who took the daily cocoa extract vs. a placebo and those who took the multivitamin vs. a placebo. 

Researchers found that three years of taking the multivitamin appeared to have slowed cognitive aging by 1.8 years, or 60%, compared with the placebo. Taking the daily cocoa extract for the three-year study period did not have any effect on cognitive function.

The data also showed that multivitamins were most beneficial for older adults who had a history of cardiovascular disease. It’s not clear why, although supplementing vitamins and minerals can improve cardiovascular health, which in turn can improve brain health. 

Just the tip of the iceberg

More research is needed to understand the specific factors driving the link between multivitamins and cognitive function. Researchers believe it could be connected to how multivitamins can help people who lack what are called micronutrients such as vitamin C or magnesium or zinc.

“Many older adults do not get adequate nutrition for many reasons, including financial issues, or they just don’t want to cook healthy meals,” said Baker. “There are also medications or medical conditions that can hamper our body’s ability to absorb micronutrients.”

“The findings are exciting but it’s too soon to make any recommendations,” said Baker. “I feel like we need to do this in one other study.”

The study is reported in Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

PBS North Carolina and Sci NC appreciate the support of The NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

PBS North Carolina and Sci NC appreciate the support of The NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.