Do memory supplements really work? What do the experts say?
Within the United States, over 5 million people are living with dementia or memory loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “The U.S. burden of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) will double by 2060.” Therefore, a desire to prolong youthfulness and remain mentally sharp has sent many searching for answers.
As a result, memory supplements and nootropics are among the most sought-after supplements. A nootropic is any natural or synthetic substance that may have a positive impact on mental skills. But do they really work?
Most professionals say no
Most professionals say no because there is little solid proof. One problem with all supplements is they are not required to be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As a result, manufacturers are not required to provide evidence of the risks or benefits of their products. Therefore, there is a large variation in purity and quality from product to product making research difficult. Additionally, the research is often inconclusive and at times controversial.
Without solid proof, what keeps us buying?
Memory supplements are heavily advertised. Marketers prey on the fears of older consumers. People are fearful of dementia, and therefore willing to spend money to help alleviate their fears. Moreover, ads with personal testimonials provide hope that these products work.
Here is a look at 5 of the top-selling nootropics or memory supplements.
Apoaequorin is a protein in jellyfish. The manufacturer claims its product “is clinically shown to help with mild memory loss” and “uniquely supports brain function”. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), however, found these claims unsubstantiated and not backed by scientific evidence. The supplement company provided their own clinical trial, the Madison Memory Study, conducted by the manufacturer, and not an independent researcher.
According to the FTC, however, the results are not statistically significant, and cannot prove the protein apoaequorin acts differently than any other protein. A class action settlement was recently reached, however, final details have not been determined.
A 2017 study published in Neuroscience Letters looked at the role of apoaequorin and was unable to conclude the dietary supplement was able to improve memory loss.
Additionally, there has been some discussion that apoaequorin is harmful and toxic to the liver in large doses. A 2019 article in Liver Toxicity, however, finds apoaequorin is safe without adverse effects.
2. DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol)
DMAE is used as a nootropic, in a number of over the counter (OTC) supplements for memory, attention, and focus. It is a compound produced naturally in the brain and also found abundantly in fish.
According to a 2013 article in Nutrition Review, DMAE increases acetylcholine, which is a natural substance in the brain. Subsequently this “may improve memory and learning skills, elevate mood, prevent memory loss in elderly adults, and increase physical energy”. In a small study cited in the article, 14 patients with dementia, saw no improvement in cognitive function or memory after 4 weeks, however did show increased motivation and initiative.
Huperzine-A is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in the plant Huperzia Serrata. It has been used in China for centuries to treat illnesses such as fevers, and blood disorders. It is used as a nootropic for improving memory and thinking. Similar to DMEA, Huperzine-A is said to increase levels of acetylcholine in the brain.
In a 2013 study that looked at 20 random clinical trials, results supported both improved memory, as well as, no significant change with cognitive function.
Phosphatidylserine is a fatty substance or phospholipid occurring naturally in the brain and derived from soybeans. It is used as a nootropic in OTC supplements that claim it replaces that which naturally decreases with age, consequently improving memory.
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition, 494 cognitively impaired elderly found an improvement with memory function and recall after a 6 month trial vs a placebo.
5. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba is an herbal supplement derived from the dried leaves of the Ginkgo tree. It is used by many in an attempt to improve short-term memory.
A study reviewed in a 2020 article in Nutrients, looked at the effects of Ginkgo biloba on the memory of healthy young military personnel to identify possible usefulness in improving cognition during deployment. Some improvements were seen; however, results were not consistent. Moreover, higher doses and longer durations did not result in further improvement.
Another study involving 262 adults over 60 years of age with no history of dementia, showed improved recall, recognition, and memory after a 6 week trial vs a placebo group.
Why not consider the MIND diet instead of memory supplements?
MIND stands for Mediterranean/Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and is a blend of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. The MIND diet goes a step further and suggests choosing specific foods within each food group, for example:
• Eat fruits and vegetables which are high in carotenoids, and flavonoids such as kale, spinach, and berries. These provide antioxidants that attack dangerous free radicals and reduce inflammation. As a result, potentially delaying the progression of dementia according to a study in the Journal of Dementia Geriatric Cognitive Disorders.
• Choose nuts and eat more fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids such as almonds, salmon, and mackerel. Studies find a relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and their protection against dementia and lowering cholesterol.
• Eat more fats and oils highest in Vitamin E such as sunflower oil, peanut oil, and avocado. A 2014 study suggests a potential relationship between Vitamin E and reduced mental decline.
• Include red wine in moderation. Red wine has resveratrol which may have beneficial effects on memory. Resveratrol is in other foods, such as grapes, berries, and very dark chocolate.
Choosing to follow the MIND diet, is one way to potentially delay mental decline while eating a healthy diet at the same time. Check out, Top 6 Foods Proven to Increase Memory and Focus for more helpful tips!
The desire to prolong aging and preserve memory is a top priority for many. For some, it is out of fear. Perhaps, a fear that stems from watching an older family member go through a struggle with dementia. Or a fear that is emphasized in this time of quarantine, as more grandparents become caregivers.
It is clear, however, that we need more research to uncover the “secret sauce” to remain forever young. In the meantime, following the MIND diet may be our best bet.
Finally, as far as supplements go, choose wisely, and consult your doctor first. While they may not be harmful, you may be wasting your money.