Worried about getting forgetful as you get older? A multivitamin a day might help keep you sharp, according to a new study by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Columbia University.
“Daily multivitamin supplementation, compared with placebo, improves memory. Multivitamin supplementation holds promise as a safe and accessible approach to maintaining cognitive health in older age,” said the study, published Wednesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The study included more than 3,500 people who were 60 and older who completed Internet-based assessments of memory and cognition annually over three years. Participants who took multivitamins did significantly better than the placebo group on the memory tests after one year, and the benefits continued for the next two years, Brigham and Women’s said in a statement.
The researchers estimated that the multivitamins improved memory performance by the equivalent of 3.1 years. In other words, the multivitamin group performed as if they were 3.1 years younger in terms of memory function.
The findings are “remarkable,” said coauthor Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Brigham’s Division of Preventive Medicine.
The study used a commonly available multivitamin — Centrum Silver — but “we think any high-quality multivitamin is likely to convey similar results,” Manson told the Washington Post.
Manson is a co-leader of the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study, or COSMOS study, which has published papers on two clinical trials testing the effect of multivitamins on cognitive function. Results from the other trial were published last year in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia. It also linked multivitamins to an improvement in memory function.
“Most older adults are worried about memory changes that occur with aging. Our study suggests that supplementation with multivitamins may be a simple and inexpensive way for older adults to slow down memory loss,” Lok-Kin Yeung, a researcher at Columbia University who co-led the research described in the latest paper, said in the Brigham statement.
Researchers found improvements in immediate recall of words but the multivitamin use “did not significantly affect memory retention, executive function, or novel object recognition,” the study noted.
The researchers also acknowledged that more research is needed into how the multivitamins were having their effect.
“Our study provides evidence that multivitamin supplementation has cognitive benefits but does not provide information about the underlying mechanisms that mediate this effect, or specific essential nutrients for cognitive aging,” the study said.
Researchers also cautioned that participants had to have computers, computer skills, and Internet connectivity and “comprised more highly educated, mostly White participants. Therefore, our findings might not generalize to a more educationally and racially/ethnically diverse population.”
Bonnie F. Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said the results were encouraging.
“Unlike many claims on vitamin labels, like ‘supports memory’ or ‘brain support,’ these findings come from a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard for scientific evidence,” Liebman said in a statement. “It’s too early to be certain that a multivitamin curbs the normal age-related decline in memory, much less dementia. However, it’s worth considering taking a daily multivitamin to get two nutrients — vitamins D and B-12 — that are difficult for older people to get from foods.”
Andrew Budson, professor of neurology at Boston University and chief of cognitive behavioral neurology at VA Boston Healthcare System, described the study as “groundbreaking.”
Low levels of vitamins B12, D, and B1, also known as thiamine, are associated with cognitive decline, he said. “That a simple multivitamin can slow cognitive decline while they are aging normally is quite exciting, as it is something that almost everyone can do,” Budson, who was not involved in the research, told the Post.
Paul E. Schulz, professor of neurology and director of the Neurocognitive Disorders Center at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, said the brain requires a lot of vitamins and minerals to function properly.
“Think of a complicated engine that requires lots of specialty parts and needs them all,” said Schulz, who also was not involved in the research. “We regularly see people who are deficient in them who come in with cognitive impairment.”
Donald Hensrud, a specialist in nutrition at the Mayo Clinic, who was not involved in the research, said “this is probably the best evidence there is for taking a multivitamin.”
“A randomized, controlled trial — good study,” he said.
The study was supported by grants from Mars Edge, a segment of Mars Inc., and the National Institutes of Health, according to Brigham and Women’s. The multivitamin and placebo tablets and packaging were donated by Pfizer Consumer Healthcare (now Haleon).
Multivitamins are already popular with older Americans; 39 percent of adults ages 60 and older take them, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, sales of multivitamins and multivitamins with minerals totaled about $8 billion in 2020, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.