A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Americans spend billions of dollars a year on supplements, including daily multivitamins. But there's debate whether all that vitamin pill popping promotes good health. Well, now a new study testing whether multivitamins can help protect memory has some pretty intriguing results. As part of our Living Better series, NPR's Allison Aubrey has been reporting on things that can help people live healthier lives. Allison, so what exactly did the researchers study?
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: So they recruited a whole bunch of people - older people, 60 and older, men, women - about 3,500 of them. They had half take a placebo, half take a multivitamin for three years. Then they gave them a whole bunch of tests to evaluate changes in memory.
MARTÍNEZ: Ooh, I love tests. What kind of tests?
AUBREY: All right, you want to take one?
AUBREY: OK. So I'm going to give you a list of words, just really simple words. You listen and then repeat them back. Ready?
AUBREY: Drum, curtain, bell, coffee, school, moon, garden, hat.
MARTÍNEZ: OK, I feel like I'm the winter soldier and I'm getting activated to do some evil deeds. OK, wait. Drum, coffee, belt?
MARTÍNEZ: Uh-oh. I got a feeling I'm not doing so well.
AUBREY: Well, we'll see. We'll do it again at the end.
AUBREY: So these list-learning tests, as they're called, they're meant to gauge your ability to kind of store and retrieve information. And so this is one way to evaluate memory. It turned out that the people taking a multivitamin in the study did a little better at recalling words. They were able to remember about a quarter more words on average compared to the people taking a placebo after one year. Now, I spoke to the study author, JoAnn Manson. She's chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and she says her take is that this is beneficial.
JOANN MANSON: It is surprising that such a clear signal for benefit in slowing age-related memory loss and cognitive decline was found in the study. Even within one year, there was evidence for slowing of age-related memory loss.
AUBREY: Now, just to be clear, on a list of, say, 20 words, that translated into remembering an extra word or two, so not a huge effect here. Still, Manson thinks there's evidence that multivitamins are beneficial.
MARTÍNEZ: Does that mean that we should all just take them?
AUBREY: Well, you know, there's long been this thinking that a multivitamin - it can't hurt. It might help, so why not? But when they've been rigorously evaluated, it's really been hard to nail down benefits. So I called around to some physicians who treat older patients to ask them whether this new study is convincing, and what I basically heard was not really. I spoke to Dr. Jeffrey Linder. He's chief of general internal medicine at Northwestern University. He reviewed the results for us.
JEFFREY LINDER: They did some distraction tests that assess kind of higher cognitive functioning. There were no differences in any of those other tests in years, one, two or three. So I kind of come back - this is intriguing, but, you know, I would have hoped to have seen a bigger difference that would have led me to make different recommendations.
AUBREY: He says when he talks to patients, he tries to have them focus on lifestyle choices and habits. He says he does see a lot of people who do take vitamins and supplements, and they believe they're helpful.
LINDER: My big concern with all of the focus that people have on supplements and vitamins is it's distracting them from things that actually will help them stay healthy.
AUBREY: The big ones, the things that really matter, are good sleeping habits, healthy relationships, physical activity and eating a healthy diet.
MARTÍNEZ: Right. It comes back to tried and true, right? That's what we're talking about.
AUBREY: Yeah, basics. I mean, it's often these simple everyday choices. And I just want to leave you with one thought. The whole concept of a multivitamin is based on the idea that the brain and body require a bunch of nutrients for optimal health. If you don't eat well, a multivitamin might fill the gaps. But we tend to absorb nutrients much better through food than through supplements. So at the start of the summer, at a time when it can be easier to eat fresh local food, why not just lean in to eating well? It can be fun and it can be social.
You want to try the word list test one more time?
MARTÍNEZ: Ah, no, I haven't taken my multivitamin yet today, Allison.
MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks.
AUBREY: Thank you, A.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.