By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


Brain Health Supplements: Do They Actually Work?

A recent survey from Harvard Health found that about 25% of adults over the age of 50 take a supplement promoted to help improve brain health. These supplements, also known as "nootropics", promise to enhance memory, improve attention span, and provide greater mental focus. Sales of these products has exploded, racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in sales each year. It's nearly impossible to watch television for any length of time and not view at least a half a dozen ads promoting supplements for brain health.

There is no denying that brain function tends to fade with age. As the years go by, it can be difficult to recall names, places, and events and to quickly process new information. It's normal, if a bit disconcerting. The promise of a supplement to improve brain health, especially for older adults, is an incredibly appealing prospect. But do they work?

Let's look at brain supplement ingredients. These supplements tend to have a wide range of ingredients, suggesting that it is not actually known which nutrients or combination of nutrients might work as promised. Some of the supplements have only one or two ingredients, while others have as many as forty active ingredients that run the gamut, from vitamins and herbals and amino acids. Prices vary as well, ranging from about $11.00 per month to more than $100.00 per month, depending upon the dosage recommended by the manufacturer. Some brands call for a single tablet a day, while others recommend four tablets a day. Some of the most popular ingredients are fish oils, B vitamins, and gingko biloba extract, which have all been studied for their effects on brain function or memory, yet none have provided clear evidence that taking them will improve brain function or prevent or delay cognitive decline or dementia.

The main issue with these and other dietary supplements is the lack of oversight. Most of the brain health supplements suggest proven effects, with statements like, "brain supplements backed by real science," "improves memory, concentration, and focus", and "supports brain health and cognitive function". However, despite making such claims, the companies will sometimes state in the fine print that the products are not, in fact, intended to treat or prevent conditions or diseases, such as Alzheimer's. If a brain health supplement claims that the product had been clinically proven or studied or that it can prevent Alzheimer's or improve your memory, the company is making illegal claims for their product.

The Food and Drug administration (FDA) warned in a 2019 report that brain enhancement supplements may be ineffective, unsafe, and could prevent a person from seeking an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. As a result, the agency issued warning letters to dozens of manufacturers of the supplements, both foreign and domestic. It may come as a surprise to many that the FDA does not actually have the authority to review dietary supplements of any kind for safety before they are made available to consumers. Only if a safety problem is found, can the FDA, require that a supplement be removed from the market. So, less important than if these supplements work is whether they are safe. There is concern about the safety of supplements that include health claims such as 'brain support' because these types of supplements are more likely to be adulterated with experimental drugs. Researchers have tested a sampling of brain health supplements and found that some contained unsafe levels of pharmaceuticals that are not FDA approved and, in some cases, were not listed on the ingredient label. Despite letters of warning from the FDA, as of 2020, some of these supplements were still being sold.

There is a current interest in exploring whether multivitamins can provide cognitive resilience, but they have no proven effect at present. While he secret combination of supplements for brain health may be discovered sometime in the future, the best advice to date is to eat a healthy diet that provides lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and seeds, rather than rely on unproven supplements to help keep you sharp.

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Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....