The next time you’re at the airport, a restaurant, the supermarket, a sporting event or other gathering, take a look around. According to estimates from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1 in every 2 people you see are taking some form of dietary supplement. About 30% of those individuals are taking a multivitamin.
While there are definite pros and cons to popping these “insurance plan” pills, EatingWell dietitians agree with the current scientific consensus that supplements are no replacement for a healthy diet. Still, among certain populations, they can be a boon to cover shortfalls, such as for vegans (who struggle to consume enough vitamin B12) and for those who are pregnant (who benefit from more folic acid).
According to a new study published September 14 in the Alzheimer’s Association journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, it might be time to add another population to the supplement consideration list. After three years of taking a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement, older adults experienced better memory and executive function (which aids in planning, focus, attention, memory and triaging tasks)—signs of cognitive improvement.
Read on for more details about this new research, plus other ways you can stay sharp as you age.
Related: The #1 Tip for Keeping Your Brain Sharp as You Age, According to Neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta
What This Brain Health Study Found
Nearly every older adult (and, TBH, every human) experiences occasional lapses in memory. The National Institute on Aging confirms that some age-related cognitive decline, such as overlooking an appointment you didn’t slot into your calendar or forgetting a word for a certain item for a minute or two, is totally normal when it’s mild and fairly infrequent. But severe cognitive decline can be a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. About 10% to 15% of all cases of mild cognitive impairment progress to dementia each year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association—and that means the brain function impairment is significant enough to impact quality of life.
Since 1 in every 9 American adults ages 65 and up currently has dementia, per Alzheimer’s Association data, and the rates are only expected to increase as we tend to live longer, scientists are hustling to try to understand how to slow the hands of time.
For this study, researchers rounded up a pool of 2,602 adults with an average age of 73 to participate. To be eligible, each person needed to have no history of heart attacks or any serious illness at the time of the study. They also couldn’t have allergies to cocoa or caffeine.
The researchers randomly assigned each person to one of three groups to follow these instructions daily for three years:
Take a 500-milligram cocoa extract supplement (that contains a polyphenol called flavanol)
Take a multivitamin-mineral supplement
Take a placebo pill
Related: 7-Day Meal Plan for Healthy Aging from the Inside Out
During an initial baseline telephone interview and at least one assessment per year, participants completed several common scientific cognitive tests, including word and story recall, number sequence recall and verbal fluency assessment (for example, the ability to accurately describe with words what’s happening in an image).
At the end of the three-year study, the scientists crunched the numbers and noticed no significant difference between the cocoa extract and placebo groups. Daily multivitamin use, though, was associated with better cognition, executive function and episodic memory. The biggest benefit was seen among the about 200 people who had a history of some form of heart disease at the outset of the study.
Larger, longer and more diverse studies (only 11% of participants were people of color, the authors noted) are needed to confirm these results. In addition, the pill-popping pools self-reported whether they followed the supplement plan or not; some could have fibbed in saying that they remembered each day.
Still, this is a nugget of knowledge that adds to earlier data related to micronutrient impact on brain health. It’s extremely difficult to make universal recommendations for supplements for all older adults, however, especially since they’re likely only useful for those who have vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
The Bottom Line
This study suggests that a daily multivitamin, but not a cocoa extract supplement, might help boost the brains of older adults as they age; right when prime cognitive decline usually sets in.
More research is needed to prove that supplements truly are beneficial for more adults (and not a waste of money), but there are several things that we know for sure can help keep your brain age younger than your biological age:
And if you do feel inspired to make a pill part of your aging game plan, be sure to consult with your doctor before you begin any new supplement or medication. And remember: Most supplements are totally unregulated—here’s the best way to tell if the one you’re considering is safe.