Millions of people take a multivitamin each day. Some believe it’s a sort of insurance in case their diet is missing some essential nutrient. Others believe it will ward off disease by boosting immunity, improving brain health, or regulating metabolism. It’s easy to see where these ideas come from: ads tout wide-ranging health benefits, even though most offer little or no evidence to back up the claims.
But research on the health benefits of multivitamins has been mixed at best. This year, for example, the US Preventive Services Task Force, a leading authority on preventive healthcare, reviewed 90 of the best available studies on supplements and vitamins, concluding the products didn’t protect healthy adults lacking nutritional deficits against cardiovascular disease, cancer, or death from all causes.
Might research on different doses, supplement combinations, or populations prompt a different conclusion? Well, yes — in fact, that may have already happened, according to a new study that focused on memory and brain function.
Can a daily multivitamin improve brain function in older adults?
Our current options for improving brain health are limited. For example, regular exercise, optimal weight, and a heart-healthy diet can improve cardiovascular health and lower the chances of certain types of dementia, such as dementia due to strokes. Beyond such common-sense measures, no available medicines, supplements, or treatments reliably improve brain function over the long term, despite advertisements claiming otherwise.
That’s why researchers continue to explore whether certain foods or supplements could prove effective. In a recent study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, more than 2,200 volunteers ages 65 and older were randomly assigned to receive cocoa or a placebo, a multivitamin or a placebo, or both cocoa and a multivitamin for three years. The multivitamin chosen for this study was Centrum Silver, which contains 27 vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in various amounts.
When tests of cognition were analyzed at the end of the trial, those receiving cocoa did not demonstrate any improvement. But those assigned to take a multivitamin had improved scores on tests of
- overall brain function (especially in people with cardiovascular disease)
- executive function (tasks such as planning ahead or remembering instructions).
Based on these findings, the researchers estimated that three years of multivitamin use could slow age-related decline in brain function by as much as 60%.
Notably, study participants were mostly white (89%), had an average age of 73, and more than half were female (60%). They were followed for only three years. However, it was a randomized, double-blind trial, which is considered the most powerful study design.
Should we all be taking multivitamins?
This study alone isn’t enough to suggest routine use of multivitamins for people of all ages. It may turn out that the benefits for older adults seen in this study were due to deficiencies in certain nutrients among some of the study participants. We don’t know if this is true because it wasn’t part of the study.
Or we might learn that the benefits reported here are too small to make much difference in real life, or wane over time, or have no effect on preventing common types of dementia. And it’s hard to ignore an earlier randomized, placebo-controlled trial that was actually larger and longer-term: it found no improvement in brain function among male physicians ages 65 and older taking multivitamins.
But it does mean that more study is warranted. We need to understand who is most likely to benefit from multivitamin use, what dose is optimal, and what parts of the multivitamin are most important. We also need trials that are larger, last longer, and include a more diverse group of participants. And certainly, there’s a difference between improving cognitive function and preventing dementia. We still need to know if conditions like Alzheimer’s disease can be prevented by multivitamin use or other supplements.
The bottom line
Claims that certain supplements can improve brain health are everywhere you look. But sound scientific evidence backing up those claims is much rarer. That’s one reason this new study is important: if confirmed, it means that a safe, widely available, and inexpensive vitamin supplement could improve quality of life for many millions of aging people.
In the past, claims made by the makers of various supplements and vitamins have gotten far ahead of the science. Studies like this one should help science catch up and sort out which claims are valid.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? (Genesis 18:24) And the Lord replied, “If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, I will spare the entire city for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26)
And be sure to say, ‘Look, your servant Jacob is right behind us.’” Jacob thought, “I will try to appease him by sending gifts ahead of me. When I see him in person, perhaps he will be friendly to me.” (Genesis 32:20)
to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” When Joseph received the message, he broke down and wept. (Genesis 50:17)
“Forgive my sin, just this once, and plead with the Lord your God to take away this death from me.” (Exodus 10:17)
Pay close attention to him, and obey his instructions. Do not rebel against him, for he is my representative, and he will not forgive your rebellion. (Exodus 23:21)
Moses Intercedes for Israel The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a terrible sin, but I will go back up to the Lord on the mountain. Perhaps I will be able to obtain forgiveness for your sin.” (Exodus 32:30) So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a terrible sin these people have committed. They have made gods of gold for themselves. (Exodus 32:31) But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, erase my name from the record you have written!” (Exodus 32:32)
The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected— even children in the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7)
And he said, “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession.” (Exodus 34:9)
just as he does with the bull offered as a sin offering for the high priest. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:20) Then he must burn all the goat’s fat on the altar, just as he does with the peace offering. Through this process, the priest will purify the leader from his sin, making him right with the Lord, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:26)
Then he must remove all the goat’s fat, just as he does with the fat of the peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar, and it will be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:31) Then he must remove all the sheep’s fat, just as he does with the fat of a sheep presented as a peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar on top of the special gifts presented to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people from their sin, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:35)
The priest will then prepare the second bird as a burnt offering, following all the procedures that have been prescribed. Through this process the priest will purify you from your sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. (Leviticus 5:10) Through this process, the priest will purify those who are guilty of any of these sins, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. The rest of the flour will belong to the priest, just as with the grain offering.” (Leviticus 5:13)
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