What if you could buy an inexpensive nutritional supplement that could bolster your physical health and mental acuity as you age? Recent research shows a pill with the potential to promote brain health may already be in your medicine cabinet.
A clinical trial found taking a commercial multivitamin-mineral for three years significantly improves cognition in older women and men.
But is that evidence strong enough for experts to recommend a daily multivitamin as a way for older adults to protect their brains against decline and dementia?
Cognition and the COSMOS
“There’s an urgent need for safe and affordable interventions to protect cognition against decline in older adults,” explained Laura D. Baker, PhD, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the trial’s co-principal investigator.
Previous studies in this area suggested two things:
- The lack of micronutrients and minerals could increase older adults’ risk for developing dementia and cognitive decline.
- Flavanols in cocoa extract (such as those in cocoa powder and dark chocolate) could enhance cognition—particularly memory and problem-solving skills.
Baker’s study – known as the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study for the Mind (COSMOS-Mind) – investigated whether taking a daily cocoa extract supplement or multivitamin-mineral supplement reduced the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, cancer and other health outcomes.
With funding from the National Institute on Aging, the COSMOS team recruited 2,262 study participants over the age of 65 with no history of cancer, stroke or diabetes or myocardial infarction. For three years, each participant received either a placebo, the essential nutrients contained in Centrum Silver or 500 milligrams of cocoa extract flavanols.
Assessments included story and word list recalls, number ordering and other indicators of overall “global” cognitive abilities. The tests also evaluated the participants’ episodic memory (an ability to recall events as they happened) and executive function (reasoning and the ability to stay focused and meet unexpected challenges).
Findings show promise but no definitive conclusions
While the cocoa extract showed no effect on cognitive function, the multivitamin appeared to slow cognitive aging by 60% – almost two years – compared to the placebo. The benefits were most dramatic for participants with significant cardiovascular disease, who were already at increased risk for cognitive impairment and decline.
One explanation may be that micronutrient levels (such as vitamins C, D and K) are typically lower in cardiovascular disease patients. So, the multivitamin may make a greater difference for those individuals who began with a lower baseline.
As the first large-scale, long-term, pragmatic, randomized clinical trial, COSMOS’ findings are significant. However, it’s hardly the last word on the subject.
“It’s too early to recommend daily multivitamin supplementation to prevent cognitive decline,” Baker concluded. “Additional research is needed in a larger and more diverse group of people. Also, we still have work to do to better understand why the multivitamin might benefit cognition in older adults.”
In a statement, Alzheimer’s Association Chief Science Officer Maria Carrillo, PhD, agreed:
“While the Alzheimer’s Association is encouraged by these results,” she said, “we are not ready to recommend widespread use of a multivitamin supplement to reduce risk of cognitive decline in older adults.”
Dietary supplements and dark chocolate
Still, dietary supplements can provide other health benefits, but they can also have unwanted side effects, such as unsafe prescription drug interactions. So, when it comes to deciding whether to take a daily multivitamin, it’s best to follow a doctor’s advice.
In addition, even though COSMOS found no indication cocoa flavanols have an effect on cognition, other studies have indicated dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain antioxidants that are good for the heart and mind.
And, as chocolate aficionados know, the benefits of cocoa go far beyond any scientific explanation.