In the fight against dementia, there may be one simple weapon we’ve always had in our armory: taking a daily multivitamin. New scientific research suggests a dietary supplement could prevent cognitive decline in people over 65 by keeping their brains sharp for another two years.
The study of 2,200 men and women found that those who took a multivitamin daily slowed their aging by 60 percent, or 1.8 years. They had improved global cognition, episodic memory and executive functioning compared to those taking a placebo. The multivitamins contain vitamins A, C, D, E, K and B minerals such as zinc, selenium and magnesium as well as some antioxidants.
“We knew that these supplements could be beneficial for brain health, but no one had ever tested them in the way we suggested,” says study author Laura D. Baker, professor of internal medicine, neurology, and public health sciences at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. “This amazing result needs to be replicated in further studies, but if true, the treatment could be available to everyone worldwide.” Multivitamins are inexpensive and accessible.”
According to YouGov, about half of us already take a supplement once a week or more, and the supplement market is rising; it is set to reach £559m in 2025.
Nevertheless, the use and effectiveness of dietary supplements has been discussed for many years.
The only previous study of long-term multivitamin use, the Physicians Health Study II, which ran from 1997 to 2011, showed no particular protection against cognitive decline. Earlier this year, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association said: “People are wasting money thinking that if we should all be following the evidence-based practices of healthy eating, there must be magic pills to keep them healthy.” work out.”
Currently the only NHS recommendation for adults in general is to take 10 micrograms of vitamin D in the autumn and winter. So why might these findings, published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, change the medical community’s approach?
“The eminent hypothesis is that the over-65s have suboptimal micronutrient status for a variety of reasons,” says Baker. “As we age, we no longer absorb nutrients in the same way. Generally in the US we eat a terrible diet of processed foods, carbs and saturated fats, but not a lot of nutrient dense foods.” The UK will face similar problems – not only is our diet becoming increasingly processed, but we are aging as we age suffer from the same problems: reduced ability to chew, loss of appetite, slower metabolism and a decrease in the production of stomach acid, which helps break down food.
Research showed that multivitamins led to improvements, particularly in people with cardiovascular disease. “Cardiovascular disease is always associated with faster cognitive decline,” says Baker. “The disease itself can rob the body of micronutrients at a faster rate, requiring you to eat more. Second, drugs alter the absorption of micronutrients.
“Our hypothesis is that regular use of a multivitamin has helped patients with heart disease overcome some of their ailments.”
However, Baker warns against further research, as a larger and more diverse group of participants is needed before we recommend all midlifers start taking supplements. “This study was conducted through a national recruitment campaign through the mail or media advertisements, and that tends to recruit a specific type of person. We want to make sure our sample is diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, but also rural.”
The multivitamin involved in the research was Centrum Silver, which contains the aforementioned broad-spectrum blend of vitamins and minerals, as well as the carotenoids lutein and lycopene — antioxidants thought to protect skin and eyes. This specific combination was not present in the less optimistic Physicians’ Study, and there are studies to support the effectiveness of the ingredients found in the formulation.
“There’s enough evidence to say that with the high doses of B vitamins and the addition of lutein and lycopene, it’s a pretty decent mix,” says Baker. “You also have to consider the possibility that it’s not a single ingredient, but the combination.”
Nishtha Patel is a clinical nutritionist who believes supplementing with B vitamins can be beneficial. “Deficiencies in B12 — vital for keeping red blood cells and nerves healthy — can produce symptoms of cognitive decline similar to dementia,” she says. “And if you’re taking medication, it affects the absorption of nutrients.” For example, medications like metformin, which are used to treat type 2 diabetes, deplete B12.
“B vitamins have been extensively researched to help maintain levels of the compound homocysteine,” says public health nutritionist Dr. Emma Derbyshire, from the Health & Food Supplements Information Service. Homocysteine is an amino acid and high levels are a risk factor for heart disease. “For example, if homocysteine levels get too high, it can affect the health of the blood vessels in the brain, potentially affecting blood flow,” says Derbyshire. “Vitamins can also act as antioxidants in the brain and reduce the risk of inflammation, which can increase the risk of poor brain health.”
However, Derbyshire warns: “Multivitamins are not intended to treat any disease, they are intended to help fill nutritional gaps in the diet. In this current study, participants did not have dementia. It may be that micronutrient levels were low in these participants and replenishing vitamins and minerals helped improve brain health.”