“Cognitive decline is among the top health concerns for most older adults,” said Chirag Vyas, an instructor in investigation at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and first author of a new study linking a daily multivitamin supplement with improved memory and slower cognitive aging for older people, in a statement.
“A daily supplement of multivitamins has the potential as an appealing and accessible approach to slow cognitive aging,” he confirms.
It’s actually not the first study to have found such an effect. Two previous trials within the same project – dubbed the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study, or COSMOS – have already suggested a cognitive benefit from a daily multivitamin, but they were based on telephone and web-based cognitive assessments of participants.
This one, however, was in-clinic: the researchers administered detailed cognitive assessments in person to more than 570 participants, all of whom were aged over 60 and live throughout the US. Compared to placebo, they found a significant benefit from a multivitamin for the subjects’ episodic memory, and a modest benefit for global cognition – although executive function and attention were not affected by the supplement.
Nevertheless, this third study, along with a meta-analysis of all three, “provides strong and consistent evidence that taking a daily multivitamin, containing more than 20 essential micronutrients, helps prevent memory loss and slow down cognitive aging,” Vyas said.
While it now seems clear that a daily multivitamin can slow cognitive aging by what the team estimates to be the equivalent of roughly two years, it’s still unknown precisely how the effect is achieved. “It is now critical to understand the mechanisms by which a daily multivitamin may protect against memory loss and cognitive decline,” comments Howard Sesso, associate director of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Division of Preventive Medicine and a co-author of the study.
“The modifying role of baseline nutritional status on protecting against cognitive decline has been shown for the COSMOS cocoa extract intervention,” he explained. “A typical multivitamin such as that tested in COSMOS contains many essential vitamins and minerals that could explain its potential benefits.”
One vitamin known to be related to brain health is B12 – and indeed all B vitamins. For example, in 2013, research at Oxford University found that a B-vitamin supplement could reduce cerebral atrophy in key regions of the brain related to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease by up to seven times. Other supplements thought to protect the brain are vitamin D and Omega-3 – both substances that most of our diets are typically low in.
Even if we go out of our way to get these nutrients, however, aging brings its own challenges to the plate. For various reasons, older bodies are less able to efficiently absorb nutrients from food – which is part of the reason why multivitamin supplements have so far not generally been recommended as standard.
But perhaps we will soon see that change. “These findings will garner attention among many older adults who are, understandably, very interested in ways to preserve brain health,” said Olivia Okereke, director of Geriatric Psychiatry at Massachusetts General and senior author of the report.
“They provide evidence for the role of a daily multivitamin in supporting better cognitive aging.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.