Few topics are of more interest to seniors – or of greater significance – than the subject of memory loss. With memory loss on the rise, as evidenced by the increasing rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, seniors are clamoring for ways to slow the rate of memory loss for as long as possible.
We’ve written a lot about this topic here on the Blog, and much of the recent news about memory loss is at least a bit encouraging. Medical science keeps uncovering new ways to keep our brains healthier longer, from eating right to exercising regularly to controlling weight and blood pressure. Well, now here’s another possible tool we can add to the “healthier brain” list: the common, everyday multivitamin tablet.
We just discovered this intriguing story in the pages of the Washington Post. Reporter Marlene Cimons writes about the latest in a series of studies showing how one group of research subjects who took a multivitamin was two years younger in memory function than a group taking a placebo. One expert called the data “stunning.” Moreover, since encountering this article, we’ve seen a slew of others on the same topic. Intrigued? Let’s take a look.
Study of Senior Memory Loss Shows Improved Results with Multivitamins
A new study, released in mid-January, reveals that a daily multivitamin “may slow memory loss among those 60 and older by about two years”, according to Cimons. The study and meta-analysis appeared Thursday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In her Washington Post article, Cimons explains that this is the third in a series of studies assessing the cognitive effects of a daily multivitamin on older adults. All three studies point to the same conclusion.
“[A] systematic review, or meta-analysis, of the three studies accompanying the most recent paper said their cumulative results were similar: The group taking a multivitamin was two years younger in memory function compared with the group taking a placebo. The meta-analysis was conducted by the same researchers who conducted the three studies,” she writes.
“Growing Evidence” That Multivitamins Aid Cognition
The studies had “nonoverlapping” participants and made use of different methods, which produced slightly varied findings. “But collectively they add to growing evidence that taking a daily multivitamin can have a significant impact on cognition among older people,” Cimons writes.
Chirag Vyas, the most recent study’s first author and an instructor in psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital, calls cognitive decline “among the top health concerns for most older adults.” To this end, something as simple as a daily supplement could be “an appealing and accessible approach” to slowing it, he said.
Many Top Hospitals Take Part in Memory Loss Study
Cimons explains that the studies are part of the COSMOS Trial – an acronym for the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study, which is “a larger body of research examining the health effects of certain dietary supplements.”
This trial is a nationwide collaboration of Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Columbia University, and Wake Forest University, along with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
In the most recent study of 573 participants, those who took a daily multivitamin “found statistically significant improvements in short- and long-term memory.” This was shown through various tests, including recalling a list of provided to them.
“But there was less benefit than in the first study for executive function tasks such as counting backward or timed naming of animals or vegetables,” said JoAnn Manson, chief of Brigham’s division of preventive medicine and co-leader of the COSMOS study with Howard Sesso, associate director of the division.
Initial Studies Show 2-3 Year Delay in Memory Loss
In the first study, participants’ cognition was tested through telephone interviews, and results showed a 1.8-year delay in memory loss and cognitive aging among those taking a multivitamin. In the second study—in which assessment was done online—the multivitamin group showed around 3.1 fewer years of memory loss compared to those taking a placebo. And in this third and most recent study, the result was a two-year delay.
But Manson notes, “The first study showed a ‘significant’ benefit in both memory and executive function, whereas the second study focused primarily on memory, not executive function.”
Some Memory Loss is Age-Related, Not Caused by Disease
According to Paul E. Schulz, professor of neurology at the McGovern Medical School at UT Health Houston, while most patients are concerned about Alzheimer’s, most often what they’re experiencing is normal age-related cognitive decline.
“Then people ask me: ‘I’m glad it’s not Alzheimer’s, but is there anything I can do about it?’” says Schulz, who was not involved in the research. “This study suggests the intriguing possibility that some degree of normal aging can be staved off by simple vitamin supplementation.”
Multivitamin Study Results Called “Stunning”
“The results are stunning and strong in their consistency,” Manson says, also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Each study shows a slightly different result but, taken together, are a powerful indication of the overall benefits of multivitamins on memory and cognitive aging.”
All told, the three studies included 5,000 participants, lasted two to three years, and were considered the “gold standard” in methodology.
Manson says, “The probability that these findings would occur by chance is less than 1 in 1,000, according to calculations in the meta-analysis. This increases the likelihood that these are real effects of the multivitamins.”
Researchers Say Any High-Quality Multivitamin Should Help
An obvious question, having seen these results, is: which multivitamin should someone take?
All of the studies used Centrum Silver for Adults (age 50+), a commonly available multivitamin. But even though other brands weren’t involved in the study, Manson says that “any high-quality multivitamin is likely to provide similar benefits.”
“We have three separate studies, plus a combined analysis, that confirm the findings,” she adds. “If this were an expensive drug, it would be aggressively marketed, even before there was evidence of long-term safety.”
What’s more, the advantages of multivitamins are obvious: they are over-the-counter, affordable, and have already proven to be safe, even for years-long use.
Experts Warn Against Over-reliance on Multivitamins
It is expected, with any study like this, that an opposing view is always important to consider.
Christin Kistler, University of Pittsburgh geriatrician, says that “people may want to hedge their bets and take a multivitamin, since there is no harm, but I will stick to healthy eating, exercise and good sleep for now.”
Manson is also quick to note that a healthy diet is still an obvious and easy way to obtain essential vitamins and minerals for brain health. But, she adds that “many people have deficiencies in one or more important micronutrients important for cognitive function, among them vitamins B12 andD, lutein and zinc.”
And while multivitamins like Centrum contain these nutrients, “that doesn’t mean people should forsake healthy eating because they are taking multivitamins,” she adds.
To conclude the article, Cimons quotes Donald Henrud, a nutrition specialist at the Mayo Clinic (who was not involved in the study), who says: “While this study doesn’t replace recommendations to eat a healthy diet, it strengthens previous findings, and remains the best evidence there is to take a multivitamin, at least for people age 60 and over.”
(Funding for the study came from various industry sources and the National Institute of Health. You can find more details in the original Washington Post report.)
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(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)