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Do Multivitamins Help Prevent Memory Loss?

In the UK there are really very few vitamin and mineral supplements we are advised to take and we are urged to gain the majority of our micronutrients from a healthy balanced diet. Nonetheless, many of us take multivitamins and minerals every day and they have come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years as most research has failed to confirm that they help to lower the risk of disease or common ailments.

Now a new study by scientists at Columbia and Harvard lends credence to the idea that multivitamins may have hidden value, finding evidence that they can slow the pace of age-related memory loss. The study, led by neuropsychologist Adam Brickman, is considered consequential because it was a randomised controlled trial — the gold standard of health and medical research. More than 3,500 people over the age of sixty were randomly assigned to take either a standard multivitamin or a placebo every day for three years and were given memory tests annually. Those who took the daily multivitamin performed much better on the tests at the end of the first year and by the end of the study had been spared the equivalent of three years’ worth of expected age-related memory decline.

Importantly, the Columbia study replicates the findings of another large clinical trial on the memory-enhancing potential of multivitamins in older adults, completed last year by scientists at Harvard and Wake Forest. Despite using different methods, the two studies produced remarkably similar results, with both finding that people with a history of cardiovascular disease experienced the most pronounced cognitive benefits from taking a multivitamin — a discovery that the researchers say could be a sign that these individuals were eating less-healthy food or absorbing fewer nutrients and therefore had more nutritional gaps to fill. Both studies used a mainstream multivitamin at accepted doses.

Further research will be needed to identify the specific nutrients that boosted people’s memory. Or maybe it isn’t a single magic bullet, but that these nutrients and others are working together to maintain brain function as we age.

Before we reach for a multivitamin, we need to appreciate that these are early studies. We don’t know yet how long the benefits that were observed will endure or if they’ll have any bearing on whether someone develops dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or another serious memory problem. In addition, we need to be aware of where supplementation may not be advisable due to our current life stage, medical history, disease or condition and we should consult our GP or health care professional before taking vitamin and mineral supplementation.

We also need to be mindful that more than the recommended daily amounts of any essential nutrients may be harmful to our health. A common mistake that people make is they assume that if it’s good to get 100 milligrams of a particular vitamin daily, it’s even better to get ten or twenty times that amount. But that may not be the case and it could actually be dangerous.

Furthermore, it is better to get our essential nutrients from food rather than from dietary supplements whenever possible. It appears our bodies are most adept at processing micronutrients in the same forms and combinations as they’re found in nature. Supplements can provide a level of protection against certain deficiencies, but there seems no substitute for a healthy diet. Other nutritional research looking at diet through randomised controlled trials has found a diet rich in oily fish, green leafy veggies, nuts and seeds may help to boost brain health and reduce depression.

Nevertheless, this latest discovery is a rare piece of encouraging news for those wishing to help prevent memory loss and we need to watch this space to see what further trials may statistically reveal.

And the brain, it seems, requires an unusually robust nutrient supply. Perhaps this is the most important lesson to draw from this latest research: that the brain is even more sensitive to nutrition than we previously realised. It may need elevated levels of various vitamins as it ages in order to continue working properly.

If this interests you and you would like further professional and personal guidance on achieving your optimum nutrition I would be happy to help you.

Happy Eating,

Nina Thomas

Registered Associate Nutritionist & Food Scientist

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