Studies endorse daily multivitamins as a tool to slow memory loss in older people

Two 'gold standard' studies showed improvements in memory for older people.

Two 'gold standard' studies showed improvements in memory for older people. Photo: Getty

Are multivitamins good for anything? Like, are they the magic beans of our dreams?

Science keeps trying to say yes via research, but tends to come up short.

If you had to boil down public health advice regarding multivitamins, the two main points would be

  1. Don’t get your hopes up that multivitamin pills will cure you of anything, like cancer, because research says they won’t.
  2. Don’t take too many at once because you only need a very small dose of most vitamins and minerals to get by, and large doses are toxic.

While multivitamins are legitimately, if carefully, even reluctantly endorsed for pregnant women and people on highly restrictive diets, people are far better off getting their nutrients from food.

No miracle pill. It’s all a bit boring, isn’t it?

And then science found something

Last week, The Washington Post, TIME magazine, CNN and sites such as Medical News Today all reported that taking a single multivitamin capsule each day may slow memory loss in people 60 and older.

This was the overall finding of a ‘gold standard’ randomised study run by Columbia University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard.

According to a statement from Columbia, the study (known as the COSMOS-Web study) involved more than 3500 adults (mostly non-Hispanic white) over age 60.

The participants were randomly assigned to take a daily multivitamin supplement or a placebo for three years.

At the end of each year, participants performed a series of online cognitive assessments at home. These were designed to test memory function, specifically in the hippocampus, an area of the brain which has a major role in learning and memory. It’s an area affected by normal ageing.

The findings

By the end of the first year, memory improved for people taking a daily multivitamin, compared with those taking a placebo.

The researchers estimate the improvement, which was sustained over the three-year study period, “was equivalent to about three years of age-related memory decline”.

What does that mean? Roughly speaking, the brains of vitamin eaters were about three years younger in terms of certain aspects of memory.

Curiously, the effect “was more pronounced in participants with underlying cardiovascular disease”.

Study leader Dr Adam M. Brickman, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia, said by way of possible explanation: “There is evidence that people with cardiovascular disease may have lower micronutrient levels that multivitamins may correct, but we don’t really know right now why the effect is stronger in this group.”

The results of the new study are consistent with another recent COSMOS study of more than 2200 older adults. This found that taking a daily multivitamin improved overall cognition, memory recall and attention – effects that were also more pronounced in those with underlying cardiovascular disease.

How significant?

The scientists have described the reported effects as “substantial” and “statistically significant”. Others have described them as interesting but small.

More details about the study put the findings into perspective. TND didn’t have access to the entire paper, just the abstract. However, CNN reported that participants were asked to learn 20 words on a computer program.

It was like a flash card exercise: they had three seconds to look at each word before it disappeared and the next word popped up.

Immediately after, participants “were asked to type all the words they could remember”.

Retested at the end of the first year, “the study found people who continued to take a daily multivitamin were able to remember, on average, nearly one extra word compared with those who took a placebo”.

These effects held for the duration of the study but seemed to plateau.

Does this translate into anything meaningful in real life? Maybe.

What appears to happen is a boost in short-term memory, which can be a bug bear once you get over 60.

What was I saying? Where did I leave the keys?  

If that’s the case, any improvement of this early symptom of ageing catching up with you is worth further investigation.

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