Daily multivitamins may help combat cognitive decline as we age, study finds

Recent research is promising for cognition, but experts stress that multivitamins are not a "silver bullet"

February 13, 2023
There could be some science behind the age-old advice to take your vitamins. [Credit: Daniel Foster | CC BY 2.0]

For people 65 years and older, taking a daily multivitamin may significantly slow cognitive aging, a recent study found.

The study’s findings provide some evidence for a potential low-cost option with minimal side effects for maintaining brain functions as we age.

“As we get older, all of us have changes in our cognitive function,” said Laura Baker, the lead author of the study and professor of geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. The study, she said, “is really important because it shows that there may be a very accessible strategy that we can all use to give ourselves some protection against cognitive decline.”

In the trial, more than 2,000 individuals were split into four groups based on what pill they would take daily for three years: a multivitamin alone, a multivitamin and cocoa extract, only cocoa extract, or a placebo pill. The researchers included cocoa extract in the study because previous studies have shown mild cognitive improvement from consuming cocoa extract, which is commonly found in dark chocolate.

Each year, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests over the phone to the members of the trial. Some of the tests included asking participants to try to recite a story after hearing it or to name as many animals as they can in one minute. Essentially, they were testing how efficiently subjects were able to “search through their filing cabinet in the brain,” said Baker.

“We were looking at a lot of attention and organizational planning skills, but also short-term and longer-term memories as well,” she added.

The researchers found that the multivitamin supplement — in this case, over-the-counter Centrum Silver — slowed the rate of age-related cognitive decline by 60%, with cognitive test scores equivalent to that of someone nearly two years younger, when compared with the placebo. Haleon, the health care company that manufactures Centrum Silver, did not fund or shape this research but did provide the supplements, according to the study’s authors. The pills typically cost around $20 per bottle.

The multivitamins were particularly beneficial for cognition in people with cardiovascular disease, which has a well-documented link to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia that accelerate cognitive decline. The cocoa extract, on the other hand, had no impact on cognitive function during the study.

“It’s a very carefully done, precise study,” said David Smith, a professor at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the research. “It’s difficult to find another explanation for the results apart from the fact that these people are taking multivitamins.”

However, experts — including Baker — are not ready to officially recommend daily multivitamins to reduce age-related cognitive decline. Baker is hesitant in part because the study’s sample population isn’t reflective of most seniors; nearly 90% of the individuals were white and had no serious illnesses prior to the study.

“We still have to remain cautious in that [the study] has to be replicated in a diverse sample and we also need to parse out what exactly in the supplements is leading to the potential benefits,” said Percy Griffin, the director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, which was not part of the study. “It’s an exciting start but more work needs to be done.”

Additionally, Baker stressed the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, rather than trying to use multivitamins as a “silver bullet” pill to prevent cognitive decline as we age.

“It’s such a horrific crime to lose the part of you that makes you, you,” Baker said. “If everyone made one decision a day to do something to protect the health of their bodies, we would all be in a very different place. Honor your body to honor your brain.”

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