The Truth About Brain-Boosting Supplements

The signs of memory loss can be scary: misplaced keys, forgetting where you parked, a task you suddenly can’t remember, repeating a question over again that was just answered.

Five million Americans are estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – a figure that’s projected to grow to 13.9 million by 2060.

To date, there are no drugs that have been shown to prevent or reverse diseases like Alzheimer’s, which is leading many people to seek out questionable treatments with false claims.

One AARP analysis on spending found that 50-plus adults spend more than $93 million a month on six different supplements marketed for brain health.

“The people taking these pills are spending between $20 and $60 a month and flushing dollars down the toilet that could be better spent on things that actually improve their brain health,” says AARP Senior Vice President for Policy Sarah Lock.

Study after study seem to reveal the same conclusions: there’s virtually no good evidence to suggest that brain health supplements can prevent or delay memory lapses, mild cognitive impairment, or dementia in older adults.

In fact, some are even doing more harm than good. Here’s what the science says about taking brain boosting supplements, and what you should do instead.

What the Research Says

The three most popular supplements marketed for memory enhancement are fish oils, B vitamins, and ginkgo biloba extract, made from the dried leaves of the ginkgo tree. But decades of studies on these three supplements have all come up short.

Fish oil pills are probably the best studied and the results are not encouraging. When all the studies are pooled, we find very small improvements in recalling lists of words soon after they’ve been learned, and the effect doesn’t last.

The only encouraging evidence is people with diets high in omega-3s, found typically in fatty fish like salmon, may have a lower risk of dementia. But similar benefits are not linked to omega-3 in pill or supplement form.

Ginkgo biloba extract is another popular brain booster and the research is not hopeful either. In one landmark trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers followed more than 3,000 people age 75 or older for six years.

Half were given 120 mg doses of the herb twice a day, while the others took a placebo. The ginkgo did not decrease the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

B vitamins are also in question when it comes to improving cognition. A 2015 review of studies found that supplementation with B6, B12, and/or folic acid failed to slow or reduce the risk of cognitive decline in healthy older adults and did not improve brain function in those with cognitive decline or dementia.

The only instances where B vitamins had any significant effect on brain health was in people with B vitamin deficiencies.

Blame Advertisers and Loose Regulation

A 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report analyzed hundreds of ads promoting memory-enhancing supplements online and identified 27 making what seemed to be illegal claims about treating or preventing diseases like dementia.

Supplements are loosely regulated, and you should be extra careful as some even contain undisclosed ingredients or prescription drugs. Several brain boosting supplements should not be taken with medications.

For example, ginkgo biloba should never be paired with blood thinners, blood pressure meds, or SSRI antidepressants.

Supplements that need to be metabolized by organs like your kidneys and liver can compete for limited metabolic function, potentially messing up the levels and performance of your medication.

What Should You Do Instead?

Two things: get active and get on a brain-boosting MIND diet.

Exercise is one of the few things within your control that has shown to protect against cognitive decline. Set a weekly goal of 150 minutes of moderate exercise.

Second, get on the MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. The diet includes lots of veggies, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, some beans, fish, and poultry, plus a daily glass of wine. A quick Google search and you’ll find all sorts of recipes.

The foods chosen in the MIND diet have all appeared to have brain-protecting effects. The researchers who invented the diet studied almost 1,000 elderly people, and followed them for an average of 4.5 years.

Those with diets most strongly in line with the MIND diet had brains that functioned as if they were 7.5 years younger than those whose diets least resembled this eating style.

A follow-up study showed that the MIND diet also cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in half. So although there seems to be no signs of miracle supplements or drugs for the treatment of cognitive decline just yet, your best bet is still the most simple: stay active and feed your brain good foods.

To a richer life,

Nilus Mattive

— Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap

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