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Study Explores Vitamins and the Brain

Contributors: JoAnn Manson, MD, MPH, DrPH; Olivia I. Okereke, MD, MS; Howard Sesso, ScD, MPH; Chirag Vyas, MBBS, MPH
7 minute read
An older woman takes a pill with a glass of water.

Maybe you can’t find your keys again. Perhaps you’re having trouble remembering an acquaintance’s name. Do you need a little longer to complete certain tasks? Do you have trouble focusing in noisy places?

Or maybe you just want to delay changes in cognitive function that tend to come with aging. As we get older, our brains may not function as well or as quickly as they used to. New research from Mass General Brigham shows that taking a comprehensive multivitamin can delay age-related declines in memory and cognitive function by an average of 2 years.

“We know nutrition is of key importance for optimal brain health. We also know that at older ages, nutrient deficiencies are common. It’s more likely with age to have a deficiency in one or more micronutrients — essential vitamins or minerals that are important to health,” says JoAnn Manson, MD, MPH, DrPH, a Mass General Brigham endocrinologist and chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

She partnered with Olivia I. Okereke, MD, MS, a Mass General Brigham psychiatrist and director of geriatric psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Chirag Vyas, MBBS, MPH, a psychiatry researcher, on an analysis that showed a comprehensive multivitamin/multimineral supplement can help preserve everyday memory and cognitive functioning. They published their findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The analysis was based on a larger study called COSMOS, led by Dr. Manson and Howard Sesso, ScD, MPH, a Mass General Brigham epidemiologist and associate director of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s.

Age-related cognitive decline

Your brain changes continuously over your entire life span. As you age, you may notice more difficulty with memory and a slowing of cognitive function — processes in the brain that allow you to learn, remember, and make decisions.

Research has shown that healthy eating habits can maintain brain health, improve memory, and slow age-related cognitive decline. Some studies at the National Institute of Aging (NIA) are examining whether nutrition can help ward off more serious conditions that affect the brain, such as dementia. Now, well-designed clinical trial research shows that a multivitamin can also slow cognitive decline.

However, the researchers caution that multivitamins can’t replace good nutrition.

“Multivitamins and other dietary supplements will never be a substitute for a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle. This is a complementary approach,” Dr. Manson says. “But we’re finding that multivitamins hold promise as a safe, accessible, and affordable approach to protecting cognitive health in older adults. This is a now well-studied, very safe supplement that appears to have these benefits.”

Cognitive benefits of a multivitamin

The study was part of a larger research effort testing the effects of a multivitamin on cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention. Because previous research had suggested that nutrition can affect cognitive function, the researchers decided to also analyze that outcome.

The analysis included more than 5,000 people older than 60. The clinical trial randomized participants — some took a multivitamin, while others got a placebo (fake pill with identical appearance) for an average of 3.6 years. The randomization process made sure participants in the two groups were virtually identical in terms of age, exercise behaviors, diet, health conditions, body mass index, smoking, and other factors. The participants didn’t know which group they were in.

“They’re taking the pills every day. They look the same. So we end up with a true test of the difference,” Dr. Okereke says.

Over time, the researchers performed a variety of neuropsychological assessments. They found that people taking the multivitamin slowed their age-related cognitive decline by an average of two years, as compared to the placebo group. The effect was especially significant in memory (ability to recall information). Subtle differences began to emerge as early as one year into vitamin supplementation.

The researchers note that the study wasn’t designed to evaluate which specific vitamins or minerals produced this effect because they were given in combination. And the study didn’t evaluate dementia or other significant cognitive impairment, such as a clinical condition known as MCI (mild cognitive impairment).

In the future, Drs. Okereke and Manson hope to explore:

  • The biological reasons behind the effects (do vitamins reduce inflammation, for example)

  • The effects of multivitamins on cognitive function in people from a broader range of educational, socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds

  • Whether younger people (in their 40s or 50s) benefit in a similar way

Be cautious about anything that’s making claims of effects on cognitive aging when they haven’t been tested rigorously in the way we did with these randomized trials.

Olivia I. Okereke, MD, MS


Mass General Brigham

How to choose multivitamins for brain health and memory

The Mass General Brigham research studied a specific vitamin brand and formulation: Centrum Silver Adults 50+.

“Another high-quality multivitamin containing a comprehensive array of essential vitamins and minerals would likely offer similar benefits,” says Dr. Okereke. She suggests that you look for a seal that indicates quality control and testing. Examples include the U.S. Pharmacopeia Verified Mark and the NSF certification mark. Drs. Okereke and Manson also recommend a vitamin with at least 20 micronutrients.

They emphasized that most products marketed as supplements for memory haven’t been vigorously tested and proven, despite their claims.

“There’s just a sea of data and reports that come out on the news all the time about the latest on memory-enhancing supplements,” Dr. Okereke says. “But none has been tested as rigorously as our study. Be cautious about anything that’s making claims of effects on cognitive aging when they haven’t been tested rigorously in the way we did with these randomized trials.”

Health conditions that affect cognitive function

Advancing age also puts you at risk for other health conditions that can affect cognitive function:

These conditions should be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. If you have more significant memory loss or confusion, contact your healthcare provider for an assessment.

JoAnn Manson, MD, MPH, DrPH


Olivia I. Okereke, MD, MS



Psychiatry Researcher
Howard Sesso, ScD, MPH