Aging is inevitable, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to slow it down. And the easier the intervention, the better.
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers report that taking a multivitamin that you can buy at the pharmacy can slow cognitive decline associated with aging by as much as two years.
The trial is part of a series led by scientists at Mass General Brigham that compared people 60 years or older taking Centrum Silver to those taking a placebo. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health and Mars Edge—a branch of the food company Mars, Inc.—and Haleon, the maker of Centrum, donated the vitamins. None of the sponsors or funders were involved in the design of the study or analysis of the results.
Two previous studies in the series had evaluated the participants over two to three years via phone or web interviews, and those results revealed that people taking a multivitamin daily scored higher on cognitive tests than those taking the placebo. In this latest study, which involved 573 people who were tested in person by the research team, the scientists saw the same benefit. Taken together, all three studies, which involved more than 5,000 volunteers, show that people taking a daily multivitamin for up to three years slowed cognitive brain aging by two years.
“These findings of consistent benefit of a multivitamin in three separate placebo-controlled studies are compelling and exciting,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and co-director of the study, which was conducted with scientists at Columbia and Wake Forest University. “They could even be considered stunning.”
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Manson says that each of the three studies showed slightly different magnitudes of benefit on different cognitive tests, which included memory skills such as recalling word lists both immediately and after a delay, naming animals and vegetables, and subtracting numbers backwards. All three trials showed particularly strong benefits for memory.
The results are a first step toward better understanding how vitamins and nutrients—especially the 20 essential micronutrients included in most multivitamins—can keep brains healthy. But questions remain: for example, is the multivitamin supplementing already adequate levels of these vitamins and nutrients in older people, or is it addressing deficiencies? Manson says the research team has some health information on the participants’ diets, which ranged from poor to good, and are planning to investigate that issue further. “We have some indication that people with lower diet quality showed greater benefit, but we need to delve into those questions in more detail,” she says. “It’s possible that in study populations with lower diet quality, or lower educational levels and lower socioeconomic status, there would be greater benefit, because it’s likely that there are more nutritional deficiencies in those groups.”
They will also be exploring whether specific vitamins or nutrients are more important for the brain as people age, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin E, lutein, and zinc. Other studies have reported that people tend to absorb less vitamin B12 as they get older, for example, and synthesize less vitamin D through the skin. And while the study only followed people for up to three years, future trials could also look at whether longer term use of multivitamins could lead to even greater benefits for the brain.
As encouraging as the results are, Manson says they don't suggest that a vitamin can substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle. “By no means does this say that people can be complacent about their diet and just pop a pill. But it is possible that a multivitamin could have a complementary role to a healthy diet and lifestyle because it includes a comprehensive array of essential vitamins and minerals, and if someone does have a deficiency in any of them, it can be of benefit.”
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