Vitamin B supplements may not increase cognitive performance in older people

A new study reports that memory and thinking skills did not improve with vitamin B12 and folic acid treatment.

Vitamin B and folic acid supplements in elderly people do not improve memory or cognitive skills in elderly people

The cognitive performance of elderly participants involved in a two-year study did not benefit from vitamin B12 and folic acid supplements, according to findings published in Neurology

The goal of the research was to determine whether a risk factor for dementia — a high blood level of the amino acid homocysteine that has been linked to memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease — could be modified through nutrition. And, because vitamin B12 and folic acid supplementation have been shown to lower homocysteine levels, the researchers hoped to demonstrate that these B vitamins could reduce memory impairment.

“Several small studies had already been conducted to show the relationship between the loss of cognitive abilities in older patients and the lack of vitamin B12 and folic acid in their diets, but the results of those studies were inconsistent,” says Rosalie Dhonukshe-Rutten, one of the study’s authors and a researcher in elder nutrition at Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

In 2008, the researchers began to recruit older participants with high homocysteine blood levels for a study to determine whether vitamin B12 and folic acid supplementation might prevent bone fractures tied to osteoporosis. Over the next three years, the number of participants, whose average age was 74, reached 2,919. Each person took either a supplement — containing 400 micrograms of folic acid and 500 micrograms of B12 – or a placebo each day for two years.

In the double-blind, randomised study, Dhonukshe-Rutten’s team obtained additional data from 800 of the study’s participants, who were given tests to assess cognitive function, including memory skills. Two years later, when the administration of vitamin supplementation or placebos ended, the same 800 participants were retested.

“Although homocysteine levels decreased by more in the group taking the B vitamins than in the group taking the placebo, unfortunately there was no difference in the scores between the two groups on the thinking and memory tests,” says Dhonukshe-Rutten, noting that many of the participants’ cognitive abilities were not in decline.

Dhonukshe-Rutten and her colleagues hope to begin another study by mid-2015 that will further examine how nutrition relates to cognitive impairment. “In addition to vitamin B12 and folic acid, the new research may incorporate additional nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and proteins, as well as use tests that can provide more sensitive outcome measurements,” she says.

However, despite her study’s focus on nutrition, Dhonukshe-Rutten warns that people should not be tempted to load up on vitamins. “It’s important to determine, through a medical professional, whether a nutritional deficiency actually exists,” she says.


[1] Van der Zwaluw NL, Dhonukshe-Rutten RAM, van Wijngaarden JP, et al. Results of 2-year vitamin B treatment on cognitive performance. Neurology. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000001050 (accessed 12 November 2014).

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, Vitamin B supplements may not increase cognitive performance in older people;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20067206

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