According to a new study, taking daily multivitamins may be associated with improved brain function in older adults, and the benefit appears to be greater for people with a history of cardiovascular disease.
The results didn’t surprise the researchers — they were rather shocked, said Laura Baker, study author and professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
“I have to use the word ‘shocked,'” Baker said.
The researchers – from Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston – analyzed cognitive function in elderly people who were given either a cocoa extract supplement containing flavonoids, a multivitamin or a placebo every day for three years. No one, not even the researchers, knew who was assigned to which daily routine until the results were revealed.
“We really thought cocoa extract was going to have benefits for cognition based on previous reports of cardiovascular benefits. So we’re expecting this big reveal in our analysis of the data – and it’s not cocoa that benefited cognition, but rather the multivitamin,” Baker said. “We’re excited because our findings have opened up a new avenue of investigation — for a simple, accessible, safe, and inexpensive intervention that may have the potential to provide a layer of protection against cognitive decline.”
But she added that she and her team aren’t ready to recommend that older adults immediately add a daily multivitamin to their routine based on these findings alone.
The findings, published Wednesday in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, are not definitive and cannot be generalized to the public. Further research is needed to confirm them.
“It’s too early to make those recommendations,” Baker said. “I feel like we need to do that in another study.”
The new study included 2,262 people, aged 65 and over, who were enrolled between August 2016 and August 2017 and followed for three years. Participants completed phone tests annually to assess their cognitive function. They were scored on story recall, demonstration of verbal fluency, and number order, among other tests.
The researchers analyzed function, based on test results, among those who took the cocoa extract daily versus a placebo, and among those who took the daily multivitamin versus a placebo.
The researchers found that three years of taking the multivitamin seemed to slow cognitive aging by 1.8 years, or 60%, compared to the placebo. Daily cocoa extract supplementation for three years did not affect cognitive function, the researchers wrote.
The study – backed by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging – also found that multivitamins were most beneficial for older people with a history of cardiovascular disease.
“It is well known that people with cardiovascular risk factors may have lower blood levels of vitamins and minerals. So, supplementation of these vitamins and minerals could improve cardiovascular health and, therefore, improve cognitive health – and we know there is a strong link between cardiovascular health and brain health,” said Dr Keith. Vossel, professor of neurology and director of the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Care at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Thanks to this link between cardiovascular health and brain health, taking steps to prevent cardiovascular disease or other chronic diseases — such as maintaining a healthy diet and exercising — can also benefit the brain, said Vossel, who was not involved in the new study.
“If we can really eliminate or really prevent chronic disease, we could prevent dementia,” he said. “About up to 40% of dementia cases could be prevented with better preventative measures across the lifespan.”
The specific factors behind this link between a multivitamin and cognitive function are unclear and need more research, but Baker and his team believe the findings may be related to how multivitamins may benefit people who may lack micronutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium or zinc.
“With age, the situation can get worse. Many of our older adults don’t have adequate nutrition for a number of reasons,” Baker said.
“As we age, we are more likely to have medical conditions that can compromise micronutrient sufficiency,” she said. “The medications we take for these conditions can also affect micronutrient sufficiency by interfering with the body’s ability to absorb these essential nutrients from the diet.”
Other studies have had mixed results on the association between certain vitamins and supplements and the risk of dementia, Vossel warned.
“We went down this road a little before with research on vitamins and dementia. For many years, dementia specialists recommended vitamin E based on some promising early results with vitamin E and cognition, and particularly those with Alzheimer’s disease. But then the results have been mixed since then,” Vossel said.
Older people should talk to their primary care physician before starting a vitamin or supplement routine, he added.
“Supplementation is generally safe, but should be carefully monitored, especially for those with memory loss, as an overdose of vitamins can be very dangerous,” Vossel said. “Even with an overdose of vitamin E or taking high levels of vitamin E, the risk of bleeding may increase. So these are just a few considerations.
Overall, the results of the new study are encouraging, said Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.
“There is definitely follow-up work that we need to see happening — especially independent confirmation in studies with larger, more diverse populations — but it’s encouraging,” she said. “There is more research that needs to be done to understand what it might be in the multivitamin that may have a benefit.”
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