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Americans spend billions of dollars on supplements each year, and about 1 in 3 adults report taking a multivitamin. But there is some debate about whether this helps promote good health.
A team of researchers set out to assess how a daily multivitamin might affect cognitive aging and memory. They followed about 3,500 older adults who participated in a randomized controlled trial. One group of participants took a placebo for three years and another group took a Silver Centrum multivitamin. The participants also took tests, administered online, to evaluate memory.
At the end of the first year, people taking a multivitamin showed improvements in their ability to remember words. The participants were given lists of words, some related, some not, and asked to memorize as many as possible. (List learning tests assess a person’s ability to store and retrieve information.)
People taking the multivitamin were able to remember about a quarter more words, which translates to just a few more words, compared to the placebo group.
“We estimate that the effect of the multivitamin intervention improved memory performance over placebo with the equivalent of 3.1 years of age-related memory change,” the authors write in their paper, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And the authors point to a lasting benefit.
“This is intriguing,” 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 evaluated in the study, such as executive function, which may be more important measures.
Study author Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says this isn’t the first study to show the benefits of multivitamins. She points to a study published last year in Alzheimer’s & Dementia that found that participants who took a daily multivitamin generally performed better on general cognitive function on tests that measured story recall, verbal fluency, number order and executive function. to measure.
“It’s surprising that the study found such a clear signal for slowing age-related memory loss and cognitive decline,” says Manson. “Those who received the multivitamin fared better than those who received the placebo.”
Our bodies and brains require many nutrients for optimal health and efficiency. Manson says if people are deficient in these nutrients, it could affect memory loss or accelerate cognitive decline. So she says taking a multivitamin can help someone avoid a deficiency if they’re not getting all the nutrients they need through their diet.
“It’s important to emphasize that a multivitamin will never be a substitute for a healthy diet,” says Manson, because micronutrients are typically better absorbed through food than through supplements. 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 a multivitamin. “If you take too much of a certain supplement and your body doesn’t need it, you just pee it out,” he says. He wrote an editorial, published in JAMA, arguing that vitamins and supplements can be a waste of money for many people. He argues that we need to help people adopt a better diet.
“Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with longevity and better function and quality of life,” says Linder. There’s plenty of research to show that a healthy diet is linked to better heart health, and when it comes to protecting cognitive function, “the current thinking is that all things that are good for your heart are good too.” are for your brain,” he says. .
When Linder talks to his patients about healthy aging, he focuses on good sleep habits, exercise, and a healthy diet. “My biggest concern with all the focus people have on vitamins is that it distracts 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 taking it,” says Dr. R. Sean Morrison, geriatrician at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. But he says he wouldn’t encourage the use of multivitamins to protect against memory loss because he says the effects measured in the studies aren’t very convincing. “I don’t think this is the magic bullet people are looking for,” says Morrison. He also emphasizes the importance of healthy habits and good social relationships in conversations with his patients.
The study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and other grants. The vitamins were supplied by Pfizer Inc. and Haleon, the makers of Centrum, the brand of multivitamins taken by study participants. The study’s authors say the funders had “no role” in the design, analysis or interpretation of the study.