Vitamins and supplements don’t always have the best reputation. The Food & Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the industry. However, that doesn’t mean they never have a place in health. In fact, Mass General Brigham researchers’ meta-analysis of more than 5,000 participants found that multivitamins could benefit a person’s memory.
At least one of the analyses showed a nearly 60% reduction in cognitive decline in people who took daily multivitamins, according to the results published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in January.
The press release for the study cites data from the American Alzheimer’s Association that about 1 in 4 U.S. adults will be in an age bracket that puts them at a greater risk for cognitive decline by 2060. The number of people living with the disease could be about 13.8 million by that year, according to 2023 data from the American Alzheimer’s Association.
Generally speaking, healthcare providers say it’s essential to understand ways to reduce the risk of or slow cognitive decline.
“Taking proactive steps to lower cognitive decline risk is essential for healthy aging,” says Dr. Joel Frank, Psy.D, a psychologist with Duality Psychological Services. “Understanding that the choices individuals make each day can help preserve their memory abilities, keep problem-solving skills sharp, and preserve their overall mental and emotional well-being.”
Dr. Frank clarifies that people can’t control every cognitive decline risk factor, but taking action where you can is important. Could taking a multivitamin be a critical tool to add to your kit? Experts dug into the research.
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About the Study
Research can be full of jargon like “meta-analysis” and “placebo.” Here’s what to know about the new research on cognitive decline and multivitamin use.
“People who were 65 or older and did not have significant cognitive decline took a simple multivitamin for three years, while others took a placebo,” explains Dr. Dale Bredesen, MD, of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute. “Although both the placebo group and the multivitamin group showed some cognitive decline after year two, overall, the multivitamin group did better cognitively.”
So, what does it all mean? Experts hesitate to give a definitive answer, but the indication is that multivitamins may have a serious perk.
“They suggest that daily multivitamin use can benefit cognitive abilities if taken for two years, and the effect is equivalent to a two-year reduction in cognitive aging,” explains Dr. Gary Small, MD, the chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center.
Digging deeper, the research suggests a particular type of memory may reap the most significant benefits. “Specifically, there was an improvement in episodic memory, or the ability to remember specific events, with multivitamin use,” Dr. Frank says. “No significant differences in executive function or attention were observed.”
Before running out to buy multivitamins for cognitive functioning, experts share the study has its limitations.
“The struggle with longitudinal studies, especially those that span multiple years, is that it is difficult to control other factors that can sway the results,” Dr. Frank says. “While taking a multivitamin might be good practice for maintaining proper nutrition, which has been shown to aid with cognitive abilities, the participants in the study continued to live their lives freely throughout the study.”
Factors like stress load and doing puzzles to stimulate the mind may have also slowed cognitive decline. Similarly, age and current health matter.
“They do not tell us whether it may help for those less than 65,” Dr. Bredesen added. “It also does not tell us whether this approach may be helpful for those who have Alzheimer’s or other causes of cognitive decline. So overall, it is a good start, but there is much to be done.”
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Why Might Multivitamins Help With Cognitive Decline
The new research doesn’t really answer this question. “The studies do not explain the mechanism of how these vitamins work to protect brain health,” Dr. Small says.
Still, he can offer some hypotheses. “Several physiological mechanisms could explain these findings, particularly the possibility that multivitamins reduce age-related oxidative stress on brain neurons,” Dr. Small explains. “[This] oxidative stress causes wear and tear on cells throughout the body.”
Dr. Frank also has a theory that’s so relatable for on-the-go types. “Our bodies, especially our brains, sometimes don’t get all the nutrients they need to thrive,” he says. “We all have busy days when it’s hard to eat well-rounded meals. A multivitamin can bridge the gap between our dietary intentions and the nutrients we actually consume. Consistently nourishing this mind and body may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.”
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What To Do Before Taking a Multivitamin
While multivitamins may have benefits, experts share it’s critical to speak with your healthcare team before consuming one. Dr. Small says some may have drug interactions and side effects. He also advises patients to consider trying to get nutrients through food first—and keeping other lifestyle tips in mind.
“Vitamins and supplements may be helpful, but a healthy lifestyle like regular exercise, healthy diet and stress management is critically important for protecting cognitive abilities as we age,” Dr. Small explains.
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- Effect of multivitamin-mineral supplementation versus placebo on cognitive function: results from the clinic subcohort of the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) randomized clinical trial and meta-analysis of 3 cognitive studies within COSMOS. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- 2023 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimer’s Association.
- Dr. Joel Frank, Psy.D, a psychologist with Duality Psychological Services.
- Dr. Dale Bredesen, MD, of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute
- Dr. Gary Small, MD, the chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center