Junkfood Science: Magical memory in a pill

May 08, 2007

Magical memory in a pill

Antioxidant vitamins have consistently failed in clinical trials to help cognitive function as we age. A clinical trial on a complete daily vitamin and mineral supplement just published in Nutrition Journal also failed to show that popping a pill kept older people sharp.

The MAVIS (Mineral And Vitamin Intervention Study) trial, led by Geraldine McNeill at the University of Aberdeen, UK, was a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial conducted at six primary care centers in northeast Scotland for one year. The participants were 910 men and women aged 65 years and older. The researchers excluded people who had been taking supplements or more likely to have had better diets and nutritional status than the general public.

Half took a daily multiple vitamin with 11 vitamins and 5 minerals that provided up to 210% of the UK Reference Nutrient Intake and half took a placebo pill. The treatment and placebo groups were well matched. The researchers tested the short-term memory of the participants using two tests: One was the “digit span forward” test which has people repeat a sequence of random letters and are scored a point for every correct sequence repeated. The second was the verbal fluency test which has people name words beginning with each of three letters and they’re scored on the number of words named correctly.

Over 78% completed the trial and there was no differences between the supplement and placebo groups in those lost in follow-up.

The researchers found no evidence of a beneficial effect of multivitamin and mineral supplements.

The did a secondary analysis among those over 75 years of age and those at high risk for nutritional deficiencies based on questionnaires, but didn’t measure actual nutritional status. They still found no evidence for a difference between supplemented and placebo groups in the digit span forward test, and only a very weak difference of 6% on verbal fluency tests which they couldn’t conclude was a real effect.

It’s easy to want to believe a supplement or special vitamin can keep our memories sharp as we grow old, but no clinical study has ever found one to do that for us. At present, there is no drug that can prevent age-related memory loss or reverse it. Nor is there a pill for people who want to sharpen their memories. In fact, there’s no evidence supporting the need for supplements beyond preventing or treating deficiencies.

And it’s even easier to overlook simple explanations for memory problems. Certain medications that seniors may be taking can cause memory problems, according to the FDA. In March, it issued a warning about 13 different sleeping aids and sedatives commonly taken by seniors. In reviewing the adverse event information for these products, they found significant side effects on memory and memory loss that were similar to dementia. Patients were even doing things while they were asleep that they had no memory of doing, including driving and turning on the stove. They recommend that seniors on these medications talk with their doctors.

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