Despite their popularity, it’s no secret that multivitamin supplements are completely useless for most people. Aside from giving you some especially expensive urine, they make little difference to your health, and might even raise your risks of certain cancers and heart disease.
However, a new study might have found an exception – for older people, taking a daily multivitamin may in fact have beneficial effects on brain health and aging.
“There's an urgent need for safe and affordable interventions to protect cognition against decline in older adults,” said Laura Baker, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and co-principal investigator of the trial, in a statement.
“Our study showed that […] daily multivitamin-mineral supplementation resulted in statistically significant cognitive improvement,” Baker said. “This is the first evidence of cognitive benefit in a large longer-term study of multivitamin supplementation in older adults.”
The strange part is that the discovery was kind of an accident. Originally, the researchers were interested in the cognitive protection of flavanols – naturally-occurring compounds that have been shown to protect against conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers.
So, in a three-year-long randomized trial, over 2,200 study participants were split into three groups: a control group, assigned a placebo; a group assigned a daily flavanol supplement; and a final group, who took a combined multivitamin and mineral tablet which included flavanols.
At the end of the three years, those participants taking the multivitamin-mineral supplement were found to have “improved global cognition, episodic memory, and executive function,” the study notes, with cognitive aging that had “appeared to have slowed… by 1.8 years, or by 60 percent” compared to those who took a placebo.
The results were published Wednesday in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia: the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Unexpectedly, while the flavanol-only group did see an improvement in cognitive tests throughout the progression of the study, it was not larger than that shown by the placebo group. “[The] daily intake of cocoa extract for three years had no effect on cognition,” concludes the paper.
But does this mean you should rush out and buy grandma a multivitamin? Not yet, say the researchers.
“It's too early to recommend daily multivitamin supplementation to prevent cognitive decline,” Baker said. There are a few reasons for that, she explained: first of all, it’s only one preliminary study, and “additional research is needed in a larger and more diverse group of people,” she said.
Although the results are promising, they’re correlation, not causation – so “we still have work to do to better understand why the multivitamin might benefit cognition in older adults,” Baker added.
Nevertheless, as diagnoses of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia continue to increase, the findings are an important step toward preventative treatments for the elderly.
“This is the first positive, large-scale, long-term study to show that multivitamin-mineral supplementation for older adults may slow cognitive aging,” said Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, in a statement.
“We envision a future where there are multiple treatments and risk reduction strategies available that address cognitive aging and dementia 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.”
But like Baker, Carrillo stressed that the Alzheimer’s Association does not yet recommend the widespread use of multivitamins to stave off cognitive decline in later life.
“For now, and until there is more data, people should talk with their health care providers about the benefits and risks of all dietary supplements, including multivitamins,” she said.