Many people turn to over-the-counter substances in hopes of boosting their memory. Do they work? Which ones are most helpful, if any? Dr. Mark Pippenger, a behavioral neurologist at Novant Health Memory Care - SouthPark in Charlotte, North Carolina, answers questions about the popular trend.
Do over-the-counter supplements help improve memory loss?
Basically, no. None of the supplements marketed as being helpful for memory, or helpful in reducing dementia or reducing risk of Alzheimer’s disease, has been shown to be effective. Many have been shown specifically to be ineffective, but there's no real solid evidence for any of the things currently marketed.
What makes them so popular? Why do people buy into their claims?
There's a desire to find something, but those over-the-counter drugs don’t really increase memory. We recommend things like regular physical exercise, and that's too much trouble. People would like to be able to just take a substance.
Plus, companies are marketing these agents very effectively. They are very good at selling things. Mostly, the companies use anecdotal evidence or testimonials from other people, and that has been shown to be very powerful for humans. There's no real science behind it.
Television is filled with commercials advertising one product in particular. What are your thoughts when you see these ads?
People think, well, it's natural, so it should work. This substance from one contains an extract from jellyfish and seems to have some kind of romantic, science, fantasy sort of idea that it has to help. I find that amusing because why would you think that a protein from a primitive life form like a jellyfish would have anything to do with the human brain? The compound in question, apoaequorin (pronounced a-po-ah-kwor-in), is a protein and it is doubtlessly broken down in the stomach and not even absorbed as an intact molecule. It's broken down into amino acids, so it really can't have any effect in the human.
What about fish oil supplements, which are popular? Do they have any benefits?
Dietary research does show that dementia is less common in people who have a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, which is contained in fish oil supplements. What's interesting is studies have not shown benefits from taking supplements. Studies show that a diet high in naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids, what you would get either from deep water fish like salmon or tuna, or conversely from certain types of nuts like walnuts or pecans, is associated with lower risk of dementia. But taking the supplements is not associated with any change in risk of dementia. Fish oil may be helpful, but probably taking the supplement is not.
Are vitamin B6 and B12 supplements helpful?
Common B vitamins, which were identified early on as possibly having something to do with memory, are popular. It’s understandable why people think B12 has something to do with memory because we advise doctors to check a B12 level on anyone with dementia. It turns out studies have failed to show that there's ever been a case of someone with dementia caused by low B12. We advise doctors to check it because people who have dementia frequently don't eat right, and frequently become deficient in B12, which has all kinds of other problems like anemia and spinal cord problems. That can be easily fixed.
We tell doctors to look for it not because the B12 causes memory problems, but because it's something common in people who have memory problems. Studies have failed to show that supplementing B vitamins actually does any good. It doesn't help memory in the short run and it doesn't decrease the risk of dementia in the long run.
The TV commercials and advertisements about supplements seem so real and believable. Why should I be cautious?
There are a number of people publishing testimony saying “I'm so much sharper now that I'm taking this.” That's anecdotal. They're prone to placebo response, which is a real response. If I give you an expensive pill and convince you it's going to work, the odds are you will see it as working. I'm not saying they're lying. They're being honest. They feel like they've gotten better. The critical thing is to look at scientific studies. Remember, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 exempted diet supplements and vitamins from supervision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So, they are not controlled by the FDA the way prescription drugs are, and they don't have to test these things. They don't have to submit them to scientific study. The key is to look for the scientific evidence.