Can Vitamins Help to Prevent Dementia?

One in three senior citizens dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. So it’s no surprise that medical researchers have spent decades looking for a way to prevent or treat cognitive decline.

A new systematic review discounts one option on the list of potential preventative measures. A meta-analysis published by the Cochrane Collaboration found limited evidence that vitamin and mineral supplements help to prevent or treat dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The systematic review collected data from 28 studies with more than 83,000 participants. Studies included a wide variety of dietary supplements in various combinations and doses, including beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D and calcium, zinc, copper, selenium, and combinations of B vitamins.

Researchers parsed the data into two time frames—following participants for 3 to 12 months or 10 years or more—to find out if the supplements made a difference in the short or long term.

While the quality of the data did not allow researchers to make definitive conclusions, they did not find any quality evidence that vitamin or mineral supplements have a meaningful effect on cognitive decline or dementia. The study did find some weak evidence that taking antioxidant vitamins—beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E—over the long term may be of some help, but more evidence is needed to draw a firm conclusion.

This new review comes after a series of meta-analyses published in 2017 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. To take a thorough look at the evidence, researchers identified randomized-controlled studies in four different treatment areas: cognitive training, prescription medicines, over-the-counter supplements, and vitamins and physical activity. Unfortunately, they did not find convincing evidence that any of the treatments worked.

Part of the problem in understanding how to prevent dementia is the lack of quality evidence. The new systematic review published last month combined data from studies that were not designed primarily to assess cognition. Many of them had no baseline cognitive assessment and used only brief cognitive assessments at follow‐up.

In addition, the factors that contribute to dementia throughout one’s life are difficult to capture in a study.  Most likely, decades of circumstances and choices—everything from diet and exercise to social life, profession and hobbies—combine in a unique way to determine the cognitive health of each person. Understanding these nuances would require conducting a study that spanned the course of decades and delved into many areas of participants’ lives.

For now, researchers’ best assumption is that what is good for your overall health is good for your cognitive health. Until more solid evidence is available, a well-balanced diet, regular physical activity, and social and intellectual stimulation are most likely your best bet in preventing or delaying dementia.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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