Are ‘Brain Vitamins” for real?
Worried about your memory slipping? Join the crowd. In a recent poll of more than 1,000 adults over 50, it was a common concern. Nearly half said they popped a pill, such as a vitamin or supplement, to help their memory. Brain health is big business; one report estimated that by 2023, people will spend more than $5 billion a year worldwide on brain health supplements.
The promise: The commercials and other marketing for brain supplements do make them hard to resist, promising better focus and better memory, not to mention the appeal of keeping up with people years younger. And some of those people in the ads have been taking them for years and, well, they look good, not to mention focused.
The proof: Research in this area is really in its infancy, according to Maxine Smith, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic. “There might be some small studies, but there is conflicting data. When you look at the bulk of the research, there are no well-designed studies.” There are, she says, associations with some of the nutrients included in the supplements and brain health benefits. But, she adds, much of the evidence for those nutrients come from food and diet rather than supplements. “These supplements are really a far stretch” when it comes to companies saying they improve memory and other brain health functions, Smith says. Companies marketing the supplements ”may be taking a little information from a very small study and making a big deal out of it.”
There is legitimate research underway. In one recent study, scientists from the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere found certain antioxidant vitamins were linked with less dementia, but caution that more study is needed.
The perils: Over-the-counter dietary supplements promising cognitive enhancement may contain multiple unapproved drugs, according to a report led by Pieter A. Cohen, MD, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He and his team evaluated 10 supplements, eight promising enhanced mental function, one sold as a “workout explosive” and another promising more endurance. They examined the contents of each, finding five unapproved drugs, with side effects including blood pressure fluctuation, agitation, sedation and hospitalization. One drug found was in doses four times higher than pharmaceutical doses.
The pitfalls: So-called brain vitamins are marketed as supplements; many may not realize that the FDA regulates dietary supplements differently than drugs. Manufacturers are responsible for evaluating the safety of their products before labeling and marketing. Makers of supplements do not need to prove to the FDA that their product is safe or that it works before putting it on store shelves.
“I recommend that my patients don’t take brain boosting supplements as I am not aware of evidence that they actually can prevent memory loss or lead to sharper thinking”
-Dr. Pieter A. Cohen
Alternative advice: “I recommend that my patients don’t take brain boosting supplements as I am not aware of evidence that they actually can prevent memory loss or lead to sharper thinking,” Cohen says. When his patients ask: ”Is there a supplement that will preserve my mental acuity?” Cohen tells them there is not, ”but we do know how to reduce the risk of strokes and other cardiovascular diseases” and that, in turn, can prevent memory loss. His how-to’s: replace meat with fruits and vegetables, control blood pressure and cholesterol, don’t smoke.
“If you want to protect your brain,” Smith says, “consider the MIND diet (Mediterranean for Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay).” It focuses on fruits, vegetables, limited fat, whole grains and fish. Those who followed it for 4.5 years had a 53% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s compared to those who did not, some research suggests.
How else to preserve your brain health? Limit alcohol, get regular activity, sleep enough, Smith suggests.
And, of course, talk to your doctor about your worries about memory loss or dementia. You’d be surprised how many people don’t.
Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based independent journalist, specializing in health, behavior, fitness and lifestyle stories. Besides writing for Senior Planet, she reports for WebMD, Medscape, Endocrine Web, Practical Pain Management, Spine Universe and other sites. She is a mom, mother-in-law and proud and happy Mimi who likes to hike, jog and shop.
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