About 25% of adults over age 50 take a supplement to improve their brain health with the promise of enhanced memory and sharper attention and focus. So do they work for what they are being consumed? The sad thing is there’s no solid proof any of them work.
Combination of nutrients for sharp memory
Most of the brain supplements focus on omega-3 fatty acids (such as those found in fish oil), vitamin E, various B vitamins, or various combinations from Pure Encapsulations, for example. But why are these important? Strong evidence is found that certain diets like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet are helping to improve cognitive function.
These diets contain such foods that have large amounts of the above-mentioned vitamins and minerals. But the unclear thing is whether the combination of nutrients in these diets that’s beneficial, whether it’s specific ones or even certain amounts, or some other factors.
Researchers have tried to answer these questions by testing how these individual nutrients affect cognitive health. So far, the limited studies have found no evidence they help, with a few rare exceptions. Still, this doesn’t mean that the memory supplements may not work. It’s just that there is not much if any, evidence from randomized clinical trials, the gold standard for research on isolated vitamins or minerals and brain health. Here’s a summary of what science has found so far and what it means.
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil)
Three types of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — which are found mostly in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel — and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in leafy green vegetables (Brussels sprouts, spinach), vegetable oils (canola, soybean), and nuts and seeds (walnuts, flaxseeds). Our body coverts ALA into EPA or DHA in a minimal amount, so the best way to get high amounts of EPA and DHA is by eating more fish. Omega-3s help build cell membranes in the brain and may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that could protect brain cells.
Fish is a staple in the Mediterranean and MIND diets, among others. Studies have found an association between a higher intake of fish and a lower risk of cognitive decline. However, omega-3 supplements haven’t shown the same effect. Any benefit seems to come from a greater intake of fish and not from taking fish oil supplements.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant and is believed to help with brain health by reducing oxidative stress. It is the only supplement that has been found to have any possible benefit. A 2014 study in the journal Nutrients reviewed the existing research on vitamin E and various health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that high-dose vitamin E may help people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia continue to perform daily life functions for a short period of time. However, vitamin E does not prevent the disease or reduce other symptoms, and high doses increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke.
Three B vitamins are often linked with brain health: B6, B9 (folate), and B12. They can help break down homocysteine, high levels associated with a greater risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. B vitamins also help produce the energy needed to develop new brain cells. However, most people get enough B vitamins through their diet. You may need extra B vitamins via supplements if you have a deficiency or have trouble getting enough through your diet, but otherwise, they do not have any clear benefit for brain health.
So the question remains the same with no evidence, why do people still buy into brain health supplements? The idea still exists that it’s easier to take a pill than to make lasting lifestyle changes. It is better to take healthy food supplements from a young age, so taking a pill that sharpens one’s memory is not needed.