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NEW YORK - 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 from Australia.
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 on a community-wide scale," Janine Walker, the lead author of the study and a researcher at Australian National University, told Reuters Health by email.
The researchers asked more than 700 people, aged 60 to 74 years, to take a daily dose of folic acid and vitamin B12 or fake pills that resembled the vitamins. The study only included people who showed signs of depression, but were not diagnosed with clinical depression.
"We felt that older people with elevated depressive symptoms were an important cohort to target given evidence that late-life depression is associated with increased risk of cognitive impairment," Walker said.
For instance, on a short term memory test, those who took the fake pills improved their score from about 5.2 to about 5.5 over the two years. Those who took the vitamins increased their test scores from 5.16 to roughly 5.6.
Joshua Miller, a professor at the University of California, Davis, said it's difficult to translate the memory improvements on the tests into real life benefits. He said 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." Miller said.
Walker said it will be important to test whether other groups of people, especially those older than the people who participated in this study, could also benefit from taking the supplements.