As individuals age, there is a tendency for memory and thinking skills to decline. However, certain lifestyle factors, such as maintaining a healthy diet, engaging in physical activity, and participating in social interactions, have been suggested to protect cognitive health in older adults.
Some studies have indicated that taking multivitamins or other dietary supplements may also have a positive effect on thinking and memory. However, there is a lack of large-scale studies directly examining the impact of dietary supplements on cognitive health in older adults, and the results of clinical trials conducted so far have been mixed.
To address this research gap, Dr. Adam M. Brickman and his team from Columbia University conducted a study involving over 3,500 volunteers aged 60 and above. Most participants were white (94%), and more than half had a college degree (56%). The participants were randomly assigned to receive either a daily multivitamin or a placebo pill, with neither the participants nor the researchers knowing which type of pill they were taking.
National Institute of Health reported that at the beginning of the study, the participants underwent a series of web-based online tests to evaluate their cognitive abilities. These tests were then repeated annually for a period of three years. After the first year, the group taking the daily multivitamin demonstrated significantly higher scores on a test of immediate recall compared to the placebo group. The test involved the participants viewing a series of 20 words, one at a time, for three seconds each. Immediately after the presentation of the words, the participants were asked to recall as many words as they could remember.
In the multivitamin group, the average score for recalled words improved from approximately 7.1 words to 7.8 words after the first year. In comparison, the placebo group showed a change from about 7.2 words to around 7.6 words. However, the improved scores in the multivitamin group did not exhibit a significant increase over the placebo group’s scores in the second and third years of the study. Additionally, no significant differences were observed between the groups in other types of cognitive tests.
An interesting finding was that participants with a history of cardiovascular disease had lower immediate-recall scores at the beginning of the study compared to those without such a history. However, after one year of taking multivitamins, the scores of individuals with cardiovascular disease significantly improved and became comparable to those without the disease.
These findings build upon the results of a related study supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which was published last year. That study, which involved more than 2,200 people aged 65 and older, found that a daily multivitamin led to improvements in a broad measure of cognitive function. Similarly, individuals with a history of cardiovascular disease experienced more pronounced improvements. Numerous vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are necessary for normal brain function.
Lack of these nutrients may increase the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment as we age. Clinical studies on the influence of specific foods on cognition, however, have shown conflicting results. Flavanols, in particular—compounds present in high concentrations in raw cocoa—have been linked to positive effects on cognition in previous studies. Instead of using clinical trials, a lot of the research on flavanols was based on observational data.
Additionally, only a small number of brief clinical trials (less than 12 months) and a single lengthier experiment with older male physicians have previously been conducted to examine the effects of a multivitamin on cognition in older persons.
Dr. Brickman suggests that individuals with cardiovascular disease may have lower levels of essential micronutrients that multivitamins can help correct. However, the exact reason why the effect is stronger in this group is currently unknown. In conclusion, this study suggests that taking a daily multivitamin may offer a simple and affordable way for older adults to slow down the decline of memory, which is a major concern for many individuals as they age.