Multivitamins are a staple in many kitchens or medicine cabinets, as they’re an easy way to feel you’re doing all you can to hit your daily vitamin and mineral requirements. However, it hasn’t been clear that a multivitamin will boost your brain health or provide any cognitive benefit.
But a January study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition strengthened evidence there may be such a benefit, at least for older adults. Compared with a placebo, older adults ages 60 and up who took a multivitamin daily (Centrum Silver) scored a little better when tested for overall cognitive ability and noticeably better in episodic memory, or the ability to recall events or experiences. This gives some weight to the idea that for older adults looking to maintain their cognitive health, taking a multivitamin could be a pretty approachable step to take.
Recommendations for or against vitamins and supplements are notoriously murky because neither are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, meaning it’s up to the company to fulfill their promise of whatever’s on the label. Also, it’s typically easier for our bodies to absorb nutrients from food than it is to absorb them in vitamin form, which is why doctors and dietitians harp on the importance of a well-rounded diet full of colorful plants, lean proteins and healthy fats.
While some vitamin companies do third-party testing of their products to help assure consumers, and vitamin recommendations for some populations are standard (such as prenatal vitamins for pregnancy), it’s left to you and your doctor to decide whether adding a supplement or vitamin makes sense.
“Whenever I think of brain health, which is really what memory falls under, I link that directly to general wellness,” said Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk, a board-certified family physician with One Medical. She added that it’s important to start habits that support your overall health before you start specifically considering brain health or vitamins. This includes doing what you can to stave off cardiovascular disease, being active, sleeping well and eating well, she said.
Aside from the general limitations of the vitamin and supplement world, another caveat for the latest study is that it looked only at older adults, and the same results can’t be used to state a benefit for other people, Malchuk said. But one of the study’s strengths is the fact that the researchers used a formal neurocognitive test to compare results. (Previous research in the same group also found a cognitive benefit, but researchers tested cognitive abilities in a more limiting way, like through phone interviews.)
And while there isn’t enough evidence to “create a recommendation for the general population,” Malchuk said, multivitamins are generally low risk, meaning most people will be able to add one to their routine without issues.
Here’s more on multivitamins and aging.
Which vitamins boost memory?
Researchers didn’t single out a specific vitamin or mineral — it studied a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement that would typically include a variety of things. The study participants took Centrum Silver, a multivitamin for adults 50 or older.
As the National Institutes of Health reported on a related study on multivitamins and memory from last year, more research is needed to pinpoint which nutrients may play a role in memory protection.
Certain nutrients have been linked to brain health in the past, including omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in foods like salmon and other fish but can also be found in other foods like avocados and walnuts and in supplement form. But generally speaking, you can assume nutrient-dense foods that are good for your overall health will also be good for your brain health.
Read more: Mediterranean Diet for Heart Health: How to Get Started
How to choose a multivitamin
Because the best vitamin or supplement for you may depend on your age, individual health or other medications you’re taking, the National Institute on Aging recommends choosing a brand your doctor, pharmacist or dietician has suggested.
Generally speaking, be wary of buying vitamins or supplements from an ad you see online, especially if you haven’t heard of the brand before or they’re making sensational claims (such as fixing your vision or making you live longer). Before adding to your cart, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor or another expert who knows how to differentiate a legitimate supplement claim from snake oil to make sure your money’s being spent in a way that may actually benefit your health.
That being said, there are easy-to-grab choices for multivitamins by brands that are relatively reputable and claim to conduct tests by third-party labs or parties.
Some of those include:
While a daily multivitamin is generally considered safe, it’s possible to overdo it with certain vitamins.
“You do also have to be careful when you start to look at the fat-soluble vitamins,” like vitamins A, D, E and K, Malchuk said, because those are vitamins that you can overdose on and aren’t as easily passed from your body.
She also cautioned against the use of herbs — a category outside the vitamin and supplement blanket — which have a greater potential to interact with medications.
Basically, Malchuk said: “If you’re doing anything specific outside the realm of the multivitamin, you have to talk with your family physician.”