Colorful pills and brain

(Credit: izzuanroslan/Shutterstock)

There are more than 650 distinct products sold over-the-counter as supplements purported to improve cognition and memory, boost energy, or delay dementia. Studies have shown that 25 to 75 percent of adults older than 50 take a brain supplement. Marketing targets several populations, including aging people concerned about cognitive decline, adults wanting to improve performance or prevent decline, and elite performers.

Brain supplement users tend to make their choices based on so-called information from friends, peers, family, and other reliable and unreliable sources. Manufacturers are required to report the exact ingredients and formulations listed on the Supplement Facts labels of products. Unfortunately, many reports have found that these labels are not always truthful, and the content of some products is inconsistent with the ingredients listed in the Supplement Facts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for taking action against adulterated or misbranded supplements, but only after products are already on the market. For that reason, supplements are not necessarily evaluated or tested for safety and effectiveness.

The following list includes the most frequently marketed dietary supplements that claim favorable effects on cognition or memory or claim the ability to prevent, delay, reverse, or slow the development of dementia.

B vitamins

Vitamins B6, B12, and B9 (folic acid) are important to brain health. Unless you’re low on them or pregnant (folic acid is essential to prevent birth defects), however, a supplement is useless. Findings from short-term studies suggest that B-vitamin supplements do not help cognitive functioning in adults ages 50 or older with or without dementia.

Caffeine

Caffeine pills and powders should not be used because of the risk of overdosing. Coffee is safe unless it makes you jittery or interferes with restorative sleep. In moderate amounts, it can, to a limited degree, enhance learning and memory. It’s a stimulant that promotes energy by blocking brain receptors for a chemical called adenosine.

L-theanine

A natural amino acid, L-theanine, seems to have the potential to improve mental performance, especially when combined with caffeine. Most studies, however, have few participants. It’s safe to drink green tea, which naturally contains both L-theanine and caffeine and antioxidants that may help your body in other ways.

Omega-3 fatty acids

The Mediterranean diet, which includes fish with omega-3s, is linked to a lower risk of dementia. Omega-3 supplements, though, in large studies (including one from the National Institutes of Health) have not demonstrated benefits. People with the APOE4 gene mutation associated with Alzheimer’s disease might benefit if they start taking the supplements early enough.

Animal and vegetable sources of omega-3
Although studies have shown fewer benefits from taking supplements, the Mediterranean diet, which includes fish with omega-3s, is linked to a lower risk of dementia. (© airborne77 – stock.adobe.com)

Vitamin E

This antioxidant combats free radicals, which damage brain cells. Large studies aimed at finding out whether vitamin E supplements can protect against dementia haven’t yielded great results, though at least one study found that they might slow the worsening of Alzheimer’s disease in people who already have it. For now, experts say most healthy people should stick with food sources like nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.

Ginkgo Biloba

Although some studies have suggested there might be beneficial effects on memory, the most rigorous research — the Ginkgo Evaluation Memory study that included 3,000 older adults — showed that ginkgo doesn’t prevent or slow the development of dementia.

Ginseng

Often used along with ginkgo biloba, ginseng is another popular supplement from Asia. As with ginkgo, some studies have suggested that it might be beneficial to memory. However, that doesn’t hold up in rigorous research. A review of several trials reported that there’s “no convincing evidence” that ginseng prevents dementia.

Curcumin

Found in turmeric (an ingredient in curry powder), curcumin has antioxidant abilities. One study by a team at UCLA showed that people who took curcumin performed better on memory tests. They also had less buildup of abnormal proteins in their brains. This study, however, included only 40 participants. Other studies did not show the same promising results.

Flat lay (top view) of Turmeric (curcumin) powder in wooden spoon
Turmeric (curcumin) powder is also an ingredient in curry powder. (© Paitoon – stock.adobe.com)

CDP-choline

Researchers who reviewed 14 studies of choline found evidence that it can benefit memory in elderly people who already have memory problems. It is not known if it can prevent memory loss in healthy people. If you’re interested in trying it, discuss it with your healthcare provider.

Supplement combinations

Many memory supplements have multiple ingredients. Some may work well together, but combined supplements are harder to study and could be risky. All supplements can cause side-effects. The risk rises with the number of different substances you take. Mixing them with prescription drugs can be risky, too. Review anything you intend to use with your healthcare provider before you use it.

The best way to stay sharp and well is to live a healthy lifestyle. Refer to StudyFinds’ article on lifestyle medicine for details.

About Dr. Faith Coleman

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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2 Comments

  1. john chesley says:

    Great article however brief. Although somewhat difficult to obtain idebenone at 20-30mg/day has enjoyed popularity in the UK, Also Alpha GPC another UK favorite is still quite popular. Omega 7’s are amazing on multiple levels with their effect on cellular membrane architecture.
    Old school Ergoloid Mesylate(3-9mg/day) will still require an Rx but with a cooperative prescriber and/or telemedicine is a time honored substance with the blessing of the man Albert Hoffman.

  2. Faith A Coleman MD says:

    Thank you for your comment and the information.