Older adults who took vitamin B12 and folic acid supplements for two years had greater improvements on short- and long-term memory tests than adults who did not take the vitamins, according to the results of a new study.
The Australian researchers said the benefits were modest, but encouraging, indicating that the vitamins may have an important role in promoting healthy ageing and mental wellbeing, as well as sustaining good cognitive functioning for longer.
The researchers asked more than 700 people, aged 60 to 74 years, to take a daily dose of folic acid (400 micrograms) and vitamin B12 (100 micrograms) or placebo pills. The study only included people who showed signs of depression, but were not diagnosed with clinical depression.
The researchers felt that older people with depressive symptoms were an important target given evidence that late-life depression is associated with increased risk of cognitive impairment.
After 12 months, there seemed to be no difference between the groups in how well the people scored on mental tests, including memory, attention and speed.
Two years later, however, those who took the vitamins showed larger improvements in their scores on the memory tasks. The difference in the improvements, however, was small.
Short term memory is used to dial a number someone has just told you, while long term memory comes into play when you try to call that number a day or week later.
Researchers say it's difficult to translate the memory improvements on the tests into real life benefits. It's likely that some people had larger memory improvements, while others benefited very little.
For any given individual, there may or may not be an effect. But on a population level, a small increase in cognitive function can have very real ramifications on the functioning of the population as a whole and on the costs of healthcare.
It's possible that certain subgroups of people might be more likely to benefit from folic acid and B12 than others.
It's not clear yet how adding vitamins might work to boost brain functioning, and not all studies have agreed upon their benefits.
One theory is that the vitamins reduce the body's levels of homocysteine, an amino acid which is linked to cardiovascular disease and poor cognitive function.
The body uses homocysteine to build proteins, but high levels of it in the blood are associated with heart disease, and heart disease is linked to mental decline.
The thinking goes that lowering homocysteine could perhaps reduce someone's cardiovascular risk, and in turn affect his mental functioning.
SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online December 14, 2011.
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