Science and research have produced medicines that cure conditions that were once thought to be incurable: eliminating an infection or disease is often as simple as taking a pill. Unfortunately, a pharmaceutical solution is not yet available for every malady, and memory loss is among those for which a cure is still being sought. As the search for medications to restore and slow memory losses caused by Alzheimer’s and aging continues, there’s been great hope put into the notion that taking certain vitamins can bring improvements, slowing memory loss and improving recall. (WebMD)
What’s The Evidence?
There’s something of a disconnect between the claims of many of the companies that are selling memory-boosting products and the scientists that research whether they are actually having an impact. There is a tremendous market for memory-boosting supplements – in fact, over $478 million was spent on them last year — and that provides a powerful incentive for companies to make claims that may be overstated and unsupported by evidence. What is largely happening is that physicians are advising a cautious and measured approach while companies are surging ahead and producing products based on previously-conducted studies of individual ingredients. While researchers like Dr. Sid Gilman, professor and chair of the department of neurology at the University of Michigan states, “There is no current evidence provided by rigorous double-blind placebo controlled clinical trials that any of these substances can improve memory in the aging brain,” he is countered by manufacturers calling it “scientifically reasonable” to assume that individual ingredients could combine into an effective product. (ABC News)
What’s Most Popular?
The truth is that the claims that are being made about various vitamins and supplements are largely unproven, and many of them have been completely debunked. This is a list of the ingredients that are most frequently-referenced as boosting memory and mental ability:
- Ginkgo biloba – This ingredient comes from a tree, and it is often credited with improving memory for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. There have been studies that have both supported and disproven this theory, and the supplement is frequently prescribed in Europe. Some researchers believe that it improves blood flow to the brain, though other theories believe that it protects brain nerve cells from damage. (University of Maryland Medical Center) [reference link no longer functional].
- Choline – Choline is a nutrient found in foods including liver, meat, fish and eggs. Researchers have found that those whose early diet is high in choline tend to have better memories later in life. They have also found that rats provided with choline supplements show memory improvement. (Reuters)
- Vitamin B-12 – Though it has been well established that a deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to memory loss, it is less clear whether supplements of the vitamin can improve memory. B-12 supports the health of red blood cells and nerve cells, and is available through a healthy diet that includes fish, meat and poultry. (Mayo Clinic). However, a lack of adequate stomach acid can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb B-12 in food. For that reason, a B-12 supplement can be advisable to prevent a deficiency that could lead to memory loss. (New York Times)
- Fish Oil Supplements – If you’ve ever heard that salmon or other fish referred to as “brain food”, it’s because of the omega-3 fats that are contained in their oil. Though there is some anecdotal evidence that supports the idea that taking fish oil supplements can improve memory capabilities, other scientific studies have contradicted this notion and found that supplementing with fish oil provides no memory boost.
When we take vitamins and supplements for memory, we do so in the hope that they will bring improvement or ward off future problems. But it’s important that you do your research before jumping to take a product that may not be safe or that may interact negatively with a drug or food that you are consuming, a pre-existing health condition, or an impending surgery, and supplements may contain hidden ingredients that can cause damage. There is also a risk for overdosing on vitamins that may be beneficial in smaller doses but toxic in higher concentrations. Health advocates urge consumers to speak with their physicians before beginning to take additional vitamins in large quantities, as well as to do your research and purchase them from a health practitioner or reputable vitamin or health food store. Vitamins and supplements are not required to run studies to determine product safety or efficacy, and the FDA neither analyzes their contents nor approves of any statements about their health claims. (“>Helpguide) [reference link no longer available]
Lifestyle Changes Prove Most Successful
We have come to rely so heavily on popping pills that the notions of changing our lifestyles can seem unreasonable. But according to neurologists and memory experts, that may be the best and most effective solution that’s available to us at this point in time. According to Dr. Gad Marshall, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, switching to a healthy diet and adding regular exercise to your routine is currently the quickest and surest fix that’s available. “My strongest recommendations are a Mediterranean-style diet and regular physical exercise,” Dr. Marshall says. “There’s good evidence from multiple studies showing that these lifestyle modifications can prevent cognitive decline and dementia and also slow down existing cognitive decline.” (Harvard)
Improve Your Diet
Scientists and physicians largely agree that it is always better to get vitamins and nutrients through our food then through supplementation. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, says, “It looks like high dose omega-3 supplementation is not the same as eating high amounts of omega-3s in a healthy dietary pattern high in marine fish and other beneficial foods and nutrients. If you eat a healthy diet with high amounts of fruits, vegetables and marine fish, you probably don’t need to take fish oil supplements. The overall dietary pattern is more important than a single nutrient.” (Time)