Millions of American adults take multivitamins daily, even though the pills haven’t been shown to prevent conditions like heart disease or cancer, and experts say it’s better to get nutrients from food.
The latest research looks at whether taking a daily vitamin can have an effect on memory. The study found that multivitamins can boost memory function in some people, causing the equivalent of three years of normal, age-related memory loss.
While the study isn’t comprehensive enough to warrant broad recommendations for taking vitamins, it provides important information about their use, said Adam Brickman, a professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University who led the study.
“Well-designed research studies show that there may indeed be some benefits” to taking multivitamins, he said.
Further research is needed to determine exactly which nutrients may make a difference.
Here’s what you need to know about the new research published Wednesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
ABOUT THE STUDY
Researchers from Columbia University in New York and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston followed more than 3,500 people over the age of 60 over three years.
The participants were randomly assigned to take a daily multivitamin or dummy pill. They were evaluated annually for three years with Internet-based exams that measure memory function.
One test gave participants a list of 20 words, one at a time, each for 3 seconds, then asked them to type all the words they remembered immediately and after 15 minutes. The exam measured the function of the hippocampus, an area in the brain that controls learning and memory, Brickman said.
After a year, participants who took daily vitamins had better memory function, from correctly remembering 7.10 words at the start to 7.81 words. Participants given dummy pills went from 7.21 words to 7.65 words. The researchers calculated that the difference amounted to an improvement in memory equivalent to about three years of normal, age-related change. That improvement persisted for at least the remaining two years of the study and was more pronounced in people with heart disease, the study found.
The multivitamins may work by providing micronutrients that improve hippocampal function, Brickman said. This is the second large study conducted by the researchers to show that memory improved in older adults who took a daily multivitamin.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and also by Mars Edge, a division of Mars that makes candy, pet food and other products; and Pfizer and Haleon, both makers of multivitamins.
ABOUT MULTIVITAMIN USE
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 60% of American adults and about 35% of children take vitamins on a daily basis. The pills are part of nearly $56 billion Americans spend each year on dietary supplements.
US dietary guidelines recommend that Americans should get their nutrients from food unless they have specific needs or are advised to take vitamins by a health care professional. Vitamins can make up for missing nutrients in the diet, but taking large amounts can cause side effects ranging from an upset stomach to serious heart and liver problems.
The US Preventive Services Task Force, a national advisory group, said last year that current evidence is “insufficient” to assess the risks and benefits of multivitamin supplements for preventing heart disease and cancer. The group advised against beta-carotene and vitamin E for this.
WHAT IT MEANS
The new study shows that vitamin pills may contain missing micronutrients, especially in the diets of older adults, said Robert Hackman, a nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study. About one third of adults over the age of 60 do not get enough vitamins, minerals and fiber through food alone.
Still, the Alzheimer’s Association does not recommend taking multivitamins to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults.
Most of the participants in the new study were white and college educated, with access to and ability to take Internet exams, noted Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association.
“It would be important to see independent confirmation of these results, particularly in more representative study populations,” she said.
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