A multivitamin supplement may slightly improve memory and slow decline : Shots

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The brain requires a large number of nutrients for optimal health and efficiency, but micronutrients are typically better absorbed through food than through supplements.

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Grace Cary/Getty Images

The brain requires a large number of nutrients for optimal health and efficiency, but micronutrients are typically better absorbed through food than through supplements.

Grace Cary/Getty Images

Americans spend billions of dollars on supplements every year, and counting one in three adults report take multivitamins. But there is debate about whether this helps promote good health.

A team of researchers wanted to assess how a daily multivitamin can influence cognitive aging and memory. They monitored approximately 3,500 older adults who were enrolled in a randomized controlled trial. One group of participants took a placebo, and another group took a Silver Centrum multivitamins, for 3 years. Participants also took tests, administered online, to assess memory.

At the end of the first year, the people who took multivitamins showed an improvement in the ability to remember words. Participants were given lists of words, some related, some not, and asked to recall as many as possible. (List learning tests assess a person’s ability to store and retrieve information, which is one part of memory.)

People who took the multivitamins were able to remember about a quarter more words, which translates into only remembering a few more words, compared to the placebo group.

“We estimate that the effect of the multivitamin intervention improved memory performance above placebo with the equivalent of 3.1 years of age-related memory change,” the authors write in the paper theirs, that was published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And the authors point to a sustained benefit.

“This is intriguing,” he says Dr. Jeffrey Linder, chief of general internal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. But he says the overall effect found in the study was quite small. “It seems like a pretty modest difference,” says Linder. And, he points out that the multivitamins had no effect on other areas of cognition assessed in the study such as executive function, which may be more important measures.

Author of the study Dr. JoAnn Manson, who is chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says this is not the first study to show benefits from multivitamins. It indicates a study published last year in Alzheimer’s & Dementia which showed that participants who took daily multivitamins performed better, overall, on global cognitive function, on tests measuring story recall, verbal fluency, digit ordering, as well as the executive function.

“It is surprising that such a clear signal for benefit in reducing age-related memory loss and cognitive decline was found in the study,” says Manson. “Those who received the multivitamins fared better than those who received the placebo.”

Our bodies and minds need many nutrients for optimal health and efficiency. Manson says that if people have deficiencies in these nutrients it can influence memory loss or cognitive speed reduction. Therefore, she says that taking multivitamins can help someone prevent a deficiency, if they are not getting all the nutrients they need from their diet.

“It is important to emphasize that a multivitamin will never be a substitute for a healthy diet,” says Manson, since micronutrients are typically better absorbed through food than through supplements.” But it can be an approach or a complementary strategy for maintaining cognitive health among older adults,” she says.

Linder says he will continue to tell his patients that if they eat a healthy diet they probably won’t benefit much from multivitamins. “If you’re taking too much of a particular supplement and your body doesn’t need it, you’re just peeing out,” he says. He wrote editorial, published in JAMA, arguing that vitamins and supplements can be a waste of money for many people. He argues, it is a bad idea to think of vitamins as an alternative to a healthy diet. Instead, he says we should help people adopt a better eating pattern.

“Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with longevity and better function and quality of life,” says Linder. There is a lot of research showing that a healthy diet is linked to better heart health, and when it comes to protecting cognitive function, “the current thinking is that all the stuff that’s good for your heart is good too for the brain,” he says. .

When Linder talks to his patients about healthy aging he focuses on good sleep habits, physical activity and a healthy diet. “My big concern with all the emphasis people have on vitamins is that it’s distracting them from things that actually help them stay healthy,” says Linder.

“If someone is taking a multivitamin, I’m not going to tell them to stop,” he says Dr. R. Sean Morrison, who is a geriatrician at the Mt. Health System. Sinai in New York. But he says he does not encourage the use of multivitamins as a way to protect against memory loss, because he says the effects measured in the studies are not very convincing. “I don’t think it’s the magic bullet that people are looking for,” Morrison says. When talking to his patients, he also focuses on the importance of good health habits and good social relationships.

The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health and other grants. The vitamins were provided by Pfizer, Inc., and Haleon, makers of Centrum, the brand of multivitamins taken by the study participants. The study authors say the funders had “no role” in the design, analysis or interpretation of the study.

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