Multivitamin supplements may help slow the normal forgetfulness that comes with aging, researchers reported Wednesday.
The analysis of data from more than 3,500 older participants showed that those who took a daily Centrum Silver pill over a period of three years had better memories than those who received a placebo treatment, according to the report published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The effects seen in the study are “very, very encouraging,” said study co-author Adam Brickman, a professor of neuropsychology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.
“Cognitive change and memory loss are a top health concern for older adults,” he said. “And we don’t have many strategies to mitigate the changes that come with aging. So it’s encouraging that a supplement can help address one of the main health concerns older adults have.”
To explore whether a daily multivitamin could benefit cognitive function, the researchers turned to participants in the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), a multiyear study which has enrolled 21,442 older men and women to investigate the effects of cocoa supplements and multivitamins on cognition and the risk of cancer and cardiovascular events.
Haleon, formerly known as Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, makes Centrum Silver and provided vitamins used in the trial. Mars Edge, part of the Mars candy and snack maker, partially funded the study with the National Institutes of Health. Neither company had any role in designing the trial or input in the findings.
For the new study, Brickman and his colleagues followed a subset of 3,562 individuals from the larger trial who were randomly assigned to receive a multivitamin or a placebo.
The researchers used a new web-based test to evaluate participants’ memories at the beginning of the study, at one year and at three years.
Compared to the placebo group, the men and women taking a daily multivitamin did significantly better on the memory test, which evaluated a person’s ability to immediately reproduce a list of words after reading it, the study found.
The researchers estimate that the multivitamin intervention improved memory performance by the equivalent of 3.1 years compared tothe placebo.
It’s the second large study to find a cognitive benefit from taking the multivitamins. Last year, another trial, COSMOS-Mind, found that daily multivitamins were associated with a 60% slowing of cognitive aging globally. That study also used data from a subset of COSMOS participants.
It’s not uncommon for researchers to fail to replicate the results of “big flashy studies,” Brickman said. “We have a clear replication of the effect of multivitamins on cognition. That gives us a lot more confidence in the data.”
The researchers don’t yet know which ingredient in the multivitamins, which include A, C, B vitamins and zinc, might be driving the effects on cognition. “It’s important to understand this,” said epidemiologist Howard Sesso, an associate professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and study co-author.
It’s also not clear whether these results would be seen with other brands of multivitamins.
“This particular brand was selected because it is commonly used in the U.S. and has a good quality and safety record,” said Sesso, who is also a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “In addition, we tested a very similar Centrum Silver formulation” in an earlier study called the Physicians’ Health Study II, he said. That study found no cognitive benefit from taking multivitamins.
The researchers have not yet looked at other types of multivitamins to determine if they would work as well or if the benefit is specific to a certain formulation.
The effect seen by the researchers is relatively small, so that an individual might not notice any improvement although it can be seen in the larger data, said Dr. Paul Newhouse, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine, who was not involved with the new research.
It’s notable “neither group showed a decline in cognition,” he said. “Rather, you’re seeing the degree to which one group improved over three years.”
Although the effect is small, using multivitamins along with other lifestyle modifications already shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, such as exercise and following the Mediterranean diet, might lead to a larger combined impact, he said.
Newhouse doesn't recommend that doctors prescribe multivitamins to their patients to prevent cognitive decline.
“We need longer studies,” he said. “But this study does suggest that multivitamin supplementation is not harmful and may be potentially beneficial.”
Also, because the participants had either finished or attended college, the results might not be the same for other groups of people, said Dr. Riddhi Patira, an investigator at the Alzheimer’s Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The are also not typical of the patients she sees, who are already experiencing cognitive decline.
“These are normal individuals who are able to go online to take the test,” Patira said. “They are highly motivated people.”
When patients ask her for lifestyle changes that might help prevent cognitive decline, she suggests a healthy diet.
Patira, who was not involved with the new study, feels the follow-up isn’t long enough to suggest multivitamins for a cognitive boost.
In healthy people with normal cognition, declines “move so slow, it’s hard to detect anything meaningful after a year,” she said, adding that differences might not be detectable for five to 20 years.