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Supplements and Brain Health

New report goes beyond the hype to find out what the science really says

Four out of five older adults take a dietary supplement. Those are the vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients — B12, fish oil, CoQ10 — that people take, usually in a pill or capsule, with the expectation of getting some kind of health benefit. Retail sales of these products in the United States alone topped $40 billion last year.

But is there evidence that supplements can help improve or preserve brain health as you age?

Not according to the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). Convened by AARP, the independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts from around the world reviewed the evidence for potential brain health benefits of some 20 vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. They did not find sufficient evidence that taking any of these supplements would boost brain health. The council’s findings were released in the report, “The Real Deal on Brain Health Supplements.” The report reviews scientific research and summarizes the consensus that the council reached on each.

The council did conclude that in cases when a health professional finds a nutritional deficiency, certain supplements might be warranted. For example, those who have vitamin B12 or folate deficiency may need to take a supplement because a lack of that B vitamin can cause cognitive problems. Some people with health conditions that cause them to have problems absorbing nutrients may also need supplements.

A booming business

Many people who take supplements do so because they want their brain to reap some of the benefits. In fact, a recent AARP survey found that more than a quarter of adults 50 and older take supplements to maintain or improve their brain health. This is abundantly evident in the aisles of drug stores and vitamin shops. Sales of supplements expected to preserve or strengthen memory nearly doubled from 2006 to 2015, when they reached $643 million. The trend is reflected in markets around the world. The global brain health supplements market is expected to hit $5.8 billion in the next four years.

“People are buying hope when they buy supplements,” says Howard Fillit, M.D., a member of the council and founding executive director and chief scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. “They don’t necessarily understand or care about evidence.”

Safety issues

The report also emphasizes that supplements, though they are sold over-the-counter and may appear to be all natural, are not benign. Dietary supplements can have harmful interactions with your prescription medications, over-the-counter medications and even other supplements. Also, the quality of ingredients in supplements can vary dramatically. Independent and government analysis have discovered impurities, contaminates and medications that weren’t listed on the label. Before you try a new supplement, talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe. Between 2007 and 2016, the Food and Drug Administration found more than 700 dietary supplements that contained prescription medications and drugs that have been banned by the FDA. The GCBH stressed in the report that it’s important to look for third-party verification that what’s promised on the label is what’s in the bottle. They recommend checking with one of these organizations if you are going to buy a supplement”  

NSF International

United States Pharmacopeia (USP)

But even if you’ve checked out the quality of ingredients, they may not be worth the risk.

“Rather than waste money on supplements that don’t have proven benefits, focus instead on doing things that do have proven brain health benefits like exercise, healthy foods, getting more sleep, and learning new things,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, who is executive director of the GCBH. —Sonya Collins

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