“I have to use the word ‘surprised,'” Baker said.
The researchers, from Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, looked at cognitive function in older adults assigned to take a cocoa extract supplement containing flavonoids, a multivitamin or a placebo every day. for three years. No one, not even the researchers, knew who was assigned to which daily routine until the results were revealed.
“We really thought cocoa extract was going to have some benefits for cognition based on previous reports of cardiovascular benefits. So we’re expecting that big reveal in our data analysis, and it wasn’t cocoa extract that benefited the cognition, but rather the multivitamin,” Baker said. “We are excited that our findings have uncovered a new avenue of research: a simple, accessible, safe and inexpensive intervention that could have the potential to provide a layer of protection against cognitive decline.”
But she added that she and her team aren’t ready to recommend that older adults immediately add a daily multivitamin to their routine based on these results alone.
“It’s too early to make these recommendations,” Baker said. “I feel like we have to do this in another studio.”
Finding connections in brain health
The new study included 2,262 people, ages 65 and older, who were enrolled between August 2016 and August 2017 and followed for three years. The participants completed tests over the phone annually to assess their cognitive function. They were scored on remembering stories, displaying verbal fluency and ordering digits, among other tests.
The researchers looked at function, based on test scores, among those who took cocoa extract daily compared to placebo, and among those who took the daily multivitamin compared to placebo.
The researchers found that three years of taking the multivitamin appeared to delay cognitive aging by 1.8 years, or 60%, compared to placebo. Daily cocoa extract supplementation for three years did not affect cognitive function, the researchers wrote.
The study, supported by the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, also found that multivitamins were more beneficial for older adults who had a history of cardiovascular disease.
Thanks to this connection between cardiovascular and brain health, taking steps to prevent cardiovascular disease or other chronic diseases, such as maintaining a healthy diet and exercising, can also benefit the brain, said Vossel, who was not involved in the new study.
“With age, the situation can get worse. Many of our older adults do not have adequate nutrition for various reasons,” Baker said.
“As we age, we are more likely to have medical conditions that can compromise micronutrient sufficiency,” he said. “The medications we take for these conditions can also affect micronutrient sufficiency by interfering with the body’s ability to absorb these essential nutrients from the diet.”
‘We’ve been down this road a bit before’
Other studies have had mixed results on the association between certain vitamins and supplements and dementia risk, Vossel said.
Older adults should talk to their primary care doctor before starting a vitamin or supplement routine, she added.
“Supplements are generally safe, but they need to be carefully monitored, especially for those with memory loss, because overdosing on vitamins can be very dangerous,” Vossel said. “Even overdosing on vitamin E or taking high levels of vitamin E can increase your risk of bleeding. These are just a few considerations.”
“Certainly there is follow-up work that we need to see happen, particularly independent confirmation in studies being done in larger and more diverse populations, but this is discouraging,” he said. “More research is needed to understand what might be in the multivitamin that might have a benefit.”