We know that multivitamins have many benefits, but for a long time, they’ve been considered controversial and received mixed reviews from the medical and scientific community. While many studies have shown improvements in blood-markers and benefits in lowering the risk of cancer and other diseases, some research seemed to suggest they did almost nothing.
But a group of scientists from Harvard Medical School and Columbia University have reported that a daily multivitamin can improve memory and even slow some of the cognitive decline that comes with aging.
And it didn’t take massive doses of vitamins or special formulations. In the trial, participants took the widely-sold drugstore brand, Centrum Silver. The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In the trial, 3,500 people over 60 were randomly assigned to take a daily multivitamin or a placebo for three years. The researchers then evaluated their brain function after the first year and again two years later, then compared those results to assessments they took at the start of the study.
Across the board, participants who took a multivitamin daily for a year showed greater improvement in their ability to immediately recall items in a web-based test than before they began taking the vitamins. The improvement was more significant than that among people taking a placebo. These benefits were consistent over the following two years of the study.
The improvements did not translate to other cognitive abilities, such as executive functions like reasoning and other memory skills. Still, an earlier study found broader cognitive benefits among 2,200 people over 60 who were also randomly assigned to take a daily multivitamin for three years or a placebo.
“I think overall we are seeing benefits of multivitamins going beyond age-related memory loss into the slowing of global cognitive aging based on these two separate studies,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and one of the study’s lead investigators. “We think it’s remarkable that the findings were replicated in this second trial.”
She goes on to say that the benefit of taking a daily multivitamin for three years translated to a slowing of cognitive aging by just over three years. The fact that the trial compared multivitamin users to those receiving a placebo provides more confidence in the results, she says, and the study is only the second to analyze the effects of multivitamins on cognition in such a rigorous way.
The previous Physicians Health Study II found no difference in cognition between multivitamin and placebo takers among 14,600 physicians… But that study did not conduct cognitive tests of the participants at the start to establish a baseline to compare the effects.
It’s hard to show know change when you’re not certain where you started.
The new study found that multivitamins’ benefits appeared after a year of daily use, then remained consistent over the next two, suggesting that the effect may not be cumulative. In the Physicians Health Study, participants were evaluated after about 2.5 years, after which any benefit may have already occurred. “We might have missed the opportunity to see any benefit because we performed the first assessments too late,” says Howard Sesso, associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a co-author of both the current study and the Physicians Health Study. “They might have already had improvements, and these just persisted.”
While the findings are encouraging, both Manson and Sesso say that relying solely on a multivitamin to maintain cognitive health among older people isn’t enough. “Dietary supplements are never a substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle,” says Manson. “However, multivitamins can be a complementary approach, especially in mid-life and among older adults—some of whom start having problems absorbing nutrients and may have less than optimal diets.”
The researchers are optimistic that other scientists will replicate their findings to show any link between multivitamins and cognitive health and generate more data on how they may contribute to improved memory. They plan to continue following the participants in the study to see if the benefits persist beyond three years; they also hope to study younger people, beginning at age 50, to see if the improvements might be more significant if people start taking multivitamins earlier.
It’s difficult to think it wouldn’t help, but only time will tell for certain.
Until then, may we suggest taking these?
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