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food for thought

It seems that taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement can do more than bridge nutrient gaps in your diet.

If you’re over 60, doing so might also help keep you cognitively fit, according to researchers from Columbia University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard.

The findings, published last month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, add to growing evidence that certain nutrients are needed to support an aging brain.

Can preserving memory be as simple as taking a one-a-day multivitamin? Here’s what to know about the latest research.

About the study

The new findings come from the COSMOS-Web trial, an ancillary study of the large-scale COSMOS study. COSMOS, which stands for COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study, was conducted in 21,442 men and women to investigate the effects of daily cocoa supplements or multivitamins on the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other health outcomes.

COSMOS-Web enrolled 3,562 COSMOS participants, average age 71, to determine if a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement could improve memory and thinking abilities over the three-year study.

In a recent column, I wrote about a separate COSMOS-Web study evaluating the effect of cocoa flavanol supplements on age-related memory loss.

For the current study, the researchers assigned participants to receive a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement (which I will refer to as simply a multivitamin) or a placebo pill for three years.

All participants performed a series of self-administered web-based cognitive tests designed to detect short-term memory loss as a result of normal aging. They did so at the start of the study and then annually for the duration of the trial.

By the end of the first year, compared with the placebo group, participants taking a daily multivitamin supplement had significant improvement in “immediate recall memory”, a cognitive function particularly vulnerable to normal cognitive aging.

The memory benefit was maintained over the three-year study.

The researchers estimated the multivitamin group (compared to the placebo group) improved memory performance equivalent to 3.1 years of age-related memory change.

Memory improvement was more pronounced in people who reported a history of stroke, heart attack or having a procedure to improve blood flow to the heart.

Strengths, caveats

The credits to this randomized controlled trial include its large sample size, participants’ high compliance with taking their multivitamins and the cognitive assessment tool used.

These new findings replicate those of an earlier COSMOS cognition study, called COSMOS-Mind, published in 2022. Among more than 2,262 participants, those who took a daily multivitamin (versus a placebo pill) had improved cognitive function evidenced by higher test scores on global cognitive function, a combined measure of attention, memory and executive function (e.g., reasoning, planning, problem-solving, multitasking).

A limitation of the current study is that the findings may not be applicable to a more racially/ethnically diverse population. Most participants were highly educated and European American.

How multivitamins might protect against memory loss

While the study provides evidence that multivitamin supplementation has cognitive benefits, it doesn’t explain how. The researchers didn’t look at whether a specific nutrient in the multivitamin was associated with memory improvement.

It is known, however, that several nutrients support brain function and have an effect on cognition, including folate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin E, iron, choline, omega-3s and others.

Some research has linked low blood levels of vitamins B12 and D with cognitive decline and dementia.

It’s possible that the benefits seen in this study were the result of correcting certain nutrient deficiencies in some study participants.

As well, there is evidence that people with cardiovascular disease may have lower levels of certain vitamins and minerals, which could explain the stronger memory effect observed in this group.

Supplements can’t replace healthy lifestyle choices

While the beneficial effect of a standard multivitamin on cognitive aging has yet to be confirmed, these one-a-day supplements are generally considered safe. As always, consult your health care provider if a multivitamin is right for you.

Supplementing with a multivitamin supplement, however, shouldn’t replace other healthy lifestyle habits that can help protect brain health as we age.

Following a healthy, plant-forward dietary pattern such as the MIND, Mediterranean and DASH diets has been tied to a slower rate of cognitive decline. And there’s plenty of evidence that regular physical exercise can reduce the rate of cognitive aging.

Other lifestyle factors that can bolster brain health include not smoking, minimizing alcohol intake, staying cognitively active and maintaining positive social relationships.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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