Longevity Hacks

A New Study Suggests Multivitamins Might Actually Have One Important Benefit

The supplements can help stave off cognitive decline, evidence suggests.

Written by Elana Spivack
Inverse; Getty Images

There’s no such thing as a silver bullet for health, though not for lack of effort. We all remember the nutrient-dense meal replacement slurry, Soylent. There’s also mainlining your 17-year-old son’s blood, but nothing is perfect. Perhaps the closest everyday version of a silver bullet is a multivitamin, though the scientific consensus on whether it actually does any good wavers.

But a multivitamin study published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition presents evidence that swings in favor of this daily regimen.

Using memory as a marker of health, the study tested over 3,500 adults over the age of 60 on word recall. They first learned 20 words, typing everything they could remember after seeing all the material. When they re-tested a year later, those who had taken the multivitamin every day for the past year on average remembered one more word than those who took a placebo, both of which had been assigned at random. One word might not seem like much, but the researchers interpreted these findings such that the multivitamin group had a memory function that was about 3.1 years younger than the placebo group. This study was conducted by researchers from Columbia University and Harvard Medical School.

So, does this mean multivitamins are worth taking for brain health? New York University Langone Health’s director of the Center for Cognitive Neurology, Thomas Wisniewski, who was not involved with the trial, gives Inverse his assessment.

Memory as health

Though this study focused only on memory as a proxy for cognitive health, Wisniewski says it’s still a reasonable marker. Disruptive memory loss is one of the primary signs of dementia in aging adults. Moreover, combating mental decline with vitamin supplements aligns with medical practices.

“A vitamin deficiency certainly can be associated with cognitive deficits, and they're perfectly treatable with vitamin supplementation,” he tells Inverse. Keeping tabs on vitamin levels is also a standard part of dementia prevention. He points to vitamins B1 (aka thiamine) and B12 as especially important, both of which multivitamins deliver and more.

This finding also falls in the context of a larger study called the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS). This new trial echoes a previous one from September 2022 that concluded multivitamins were linked with improved memory, attention span, and cognition in those with a history of heart disease.

Health hang-ups

Despite this, and before you run out to purchase a year’s supply of gummy vitamins, there are a number of limitations that Wisniewski points out. For one, he says, people who take vitamins tend to be more health conscious anyway, so their improved cognitive function may be a result of their other efforts rather than the multivitamin itself.

“By taking the health supplements, they might be more physically [and] cognitively active,” he says. In other words, people who voluntarily take health supplements likely take care of their well-being in other ways too, like balanced diets and regular exercise.

He also says that while an online assessment of cognitive function is “a reasonable thing,” it’s “much less accurate” than an in-person test.

Beyond vitamins

Vitamin supplements are just that — supplements. They’re meant to boost other efforts for vitamin intake, not replace them. “Relying on just taking a vitamin supplement is the wrong way to go,” Wisniewski tells Inverse.

As diets go, Wisniewski singles out the Mediterranean diet, which is based on plentiful whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats such as olive oil, fish, and only a little red meat. This popular diet is far less restrictive and more versatile than many others and crucially emphasizes the enjoyment of food. This lifestyle, he says, also comes with plenty of epidemiological evidence that it protects against dementia.

Wisniewski also suggests ensuring vitamins come from a reliable source. These capsules are deemed dietary supplements, so they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Wisniewski says that manufacturing regulations for dietary supplements are less stringent depending on the country, so a multivitamin’s label may not always reflect what’s actually in it.

His primary takeaway is that this study ought to remind everyone that vitamin levels are indeed a part of good health. Multivitamins fit in there as a potential tool, but certainly not a silver bullet.

“I don't think it's enough to suggest that people should go out and use multivitamins to prevent dementia per se, but it plays into the broad discussion that it is worthwhile having a good diet and making sure vitamin levels … are added in assessments of dementia risk,” he says.

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