Taking a daily multivitamin might be associated with improved brain function in older adults, a new study says, and the benefit appears to be greater for those with a history of cardiovascular disease.
The findings did not surprise the researchers — rather, they were shocked, said Laura Baker, an author of the study and professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
A studyTrusted Source published today in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia is reporting that taking a daily multivitamin may help reduce cognitive decline.
The study involved more than 2,200 people over 65 without signs or diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease at the start of the study. Each participant was blindly assigned a group taking:
- Cocoa extract supplements
- Multivitamin and cocoa extract supplements
Participants agreed to take the supplement daily for three years. They were assessed annually for overall cognitive, memory, and executive functions.
The researchers said that benefits plateaued at the end of the second year. At the end of two years, those who took the multivitamin showed improved memory and executive function compared to the other groups. The multivitamin also slowed cognitive decline by around 60% or 1.8 years.
“The use of a multivitamin for patients with memory loss is something I routinely do in my neurology practice,” Dr. Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, told Healthline. “This study is refreshing to read as it attempts to quantify the potential benefits of multivitamins in patients with memory loss.”
The researchers said they did not notice any significant effect on cognition from cocoa supplements.
The connection between vitamins and brain health
Deficiencies in B12 are associated with cognitive decline, according to the National Institutes of HealthTrusted Source.
So, it’s possible that those helped received a benefit from B12 rather than the multivitamin.
Laura Baker, Ph.D., a study researcher and a professor of gerontology and geriatric Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, says the matter of B12 is still an unresolved issue.
“We still need to look at that more in-depth to understand whether it might be a mechanism for improvement. I think the results are still out on that topic,” she said in a statement.
Yvette A McFarlane, NP, an internal medicine specialist at HYU Langone Medical Associates – West Palm Beach in Florida, agrees.
“I am usually cautious to make generalized recommendations regarding the use of multivitamins. Instead, my approach has focused on measurable deficiencies, such as vitamin D or B12,” she told Healthline.
Around 10 percent of the study participants were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease at the start of the study. Researchers said having cardiovascular disease can lead to an increased risk of cognitive decline.
At baseline, these participants scored lower than average. Those who received a multivitamin significantly improved during the study, with scores equaling those without cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study. Participants with cardiovascular disease who received placebos continued to decline throughout the study, the researchers reported.
Some words of caution
Although the researchers mentioned improvements in executive function, Segil urges caution.
“As a practicing neurologist, it concerns me that a claim is being made that a multivitamin can improve executive function, as this is a claim that is not justified by the data I reviewed for the study,” he said.
The study researchers did note that multivitamins should not be a treatment all on their own, a position Segil supports.
“It is my opinion that the use of vitamins should be used in conjunction with long-standing FDA-approved medications like Aricept or Namenda, rather than in place of these drugs,” he said.
Treating cognitive decline takes a multimodal approach, believes McFarlane.
“This study underscores several schools of thought regarding the use of multivitamins for not only cognitive preservation but also mood, energy, and vitality,” she said. “Without hesitance, I support a more holistic approach which includes a balanced diet, physical activity, good sleep hygiene, preventive health/maintenance, and social interaction.”
It is important to note that Pfizer funded the study and supplied some multivitamins, and Mars provided the cocoa extract.
However, under “conflicts of interest,” the study states, “Neither the National Institutes of Health, Mars, nor Pfizer contributed to any aspect of the trial including design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; or decision to submit the manuscript for publication. The authors have no competing interests to report.”
‘We’ve been down this road a little before’
Other studies have had mixed results in the association between certain vitamins and supplements and dementia risk, Vossel warned.
“We’ve been down this road a little before with vitamins and dementia research. For many years, dementia specialists were recommending vitamin E based on some early promising results with vitamin E and cognition, and especially those with Alzheimer’s disease. But then, the results have been mixed since then,” Vossel said.
Older adults should talk to their primary care physician before starting a vitamin or supplement routine, he added.
“Supplementing is usually safe, but it needs to be monitored carefully, especially for those who have memory loss, because overdosing with vitamins can be very dangerous,” Vossel said. “Even with vitamin E overdosing or taking high levels of vitamin E can increase the risk of bleeding. So these are just some considerations.”
Overall, the new study’s findings are encouraging, said Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.
“There’s certainly follow-up work that we need to see happen — particularly independent confirmation in studies that are in larger and more diverse populations — but this is encouraging,” she said. “There is more research that needs to be done to understand what it might be in the multivitamin that may have a benefit.”