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B Vitamin Supplements May Help Memory, Mental Abilities


A decline or loss of memory and mental abilities is one of the biggest fears people have as they get older. Researchers in a new study report that taking a B vitamin supplement appears to slow mental decline and help memory in people who have mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

B vitamins can lower homocysteine levels

In this latest double-blind study, investigators from the University of Oxford and the University of Oslo found that daily supplementation with the B vitamins folic acid, B6, and B12, when compared with placebo, led to a 30 percent reduction in levels of homocysteine as well as improvements in mental tests, including episodic memory.

Elevated levels of homocysteine, a non-protein amino acid produced by the body, usually as a by-product of consuming meat, is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, blood clots, heart attack, atherosclerosis, and stroke.

Atrophy (wasting) of the brain is a common symptom of MCI, which can be an early sign of dementia, and high homocysteine levels appear to be a significant factor in identifying the rate of atrophy.

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The 266 participants in the study had MCI and were all age 70 or older. They were randomly assigned to receive either a daily dose of 0.8 mg folic acid, 0.5 mg vitamin B12, and 20 mg vitamin B6 (133 individuals) or placebo (133) for two years.

Tests of cognition, episodic memory (memory of past events, places, times), and semantic memory (part of long-term memory concerned with meanings and concepts), showed that the participants who took the B vitamin supplements scored significantly better than did participants who took the placebo. In addition, individuals who took the supplements also had homocysteine levels 30% lower than people in the placebo group.

Results of some previous studies do not concur with these latest findings. A review published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2007, for example, reported that six trials of combinations of the three B vitamins concluded that the nutrients had no effect on cognitive function.

Research shows that B vitamins have a role in cognitive function, yet the importance of B vitamin supplements in memory and mental abilities is still uncertain. Although this study suggests supplementation with folic acid, B6, and B12 lowers homocysteine levels and improves mental functioning in people with MCI, further research is needed.

Balk EM et al. Archives of Internal Medicine 2007 Jan 8; 167(1): 21-30
De Jager CA et al. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2011; doi: 10.1002/gps.2758

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