Memory Supplements Forgettable, Says CSPI

Pills’ Science Debunked in Nutrition Action Healthletter [watch video]


WASHINGTON—Don’t count on dietary supplements to help protect or improve your memory, despite the appealing claims on dozens of products. There’s no solid science indicating that any of the major ingredients in these pills actually work, according to a review in the May issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

With names like Memory Optimizer, Memory Defense, or Brain Advantage, these purported brain boosters often bear the names of prominent figures in alternative medicine. Even Prevention Magazine markets its own Memory Support formula. But CSPI says the science is flimsy on the pills, which can cost up to $70 per month. The irony is that the people who would most benefit from an effective memory enhancer—the elderly—are the most likely to be taken in by these unsubstantiated claims, says CSPI.

“These unscrupulous companies are ripping off the elderly and other people who might be vulnerable due to cognitive problems,” said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt. “These claims just aren’t justifiable—and neither is the expense.”

Antioxidants are common ingredients in memory supplements, particularly lipoic acid (Stephen Sinatra’s Memory Defense has it) and the Asian plant bacopa (Shaklee’s Memory Optimizer has it). The single study of lipoic acid’s effect on cognition found that it didn’t help HIV patients with dementia. Of three Australian studies of bacopa, one found that 23 adolescents scored higher on memory tests but two bigger studies of middle-aged and older people found no effect.

Neurotransmitters relay signals from one nerve cell to another. Choline, a building block of one such neurotransmitter involved in memory, is used in Prevention magazine’s Memory Support, but studies show that in supplement form choline doesn’t even reach the brain. That doesn’t bode well for the substance DMAE, a building block of choline, used in Dr. Susan Lark’s Memory Answer formulation. No study has found DMAE to be helpful for memory, and several tests have found it not to be useful for Huntington’s or Alzheimer’s patients.

B vitamins are included in some products (like BioAdapt’s Memory Formula) because they can lower levels of homocysteine in blood, and high levels of homocysteine are linked to poor cognition. One Dutch study found that folic acid helped more than a placebo in folate-deficient volunteers, but grain-based foods in the U.S. are already fortified with folic acid (the Dutch study looked at folate-deficient volunteers.) Seventeen of the 18 other studies showed no effect of B vitamins on memory.

Ginkgo biloba helps increase blood flow, and is included in many memory formulas, including David Williams’ Brain Advantage, yet studies are inconclusive at best. The most recent tests showed ginkgo takers scored better on just one of 14 tests of brain function—a result that may be due to chance.

“I suppose these manufacturers are hoping you’ll forget how much you’re paying to try to improve your memory,” Schardt said.

CSPI’s Schardt assembled links to some of the key studies mentioned above, and discusses some of his findings in a video posted on CSPI’s web site.

With 900,000 subscribers in the U.S. and Canada, Nutrition Action Healthletter is the largest-circulation health publication in North America.

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