By Leah Fein
Dietary supplements are products that contain a “dietary ingredient,” like vitamins and minerals. Supplements can come in many forms too, such as pills, powders, liquids, and food bars.
“It’s tempting to think you can pop a pill and prevent dementia—but the science says that doesn’t work,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and GCBH executive director. “The good news is, we know what will help to keep your brain healthy: exercise, a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, challenging your thinking skills, and connecting with others.
“Rather than buying a dietary supplement, spend your money on new walking shoes or a salmon dinner.”
Although supplements don’t protect brain health, about 1 in 3 adults aged 50 or older take a supplement under the false assumption that they do. In 2016, brain health supplements generated $3 billion dollars in sales.
Self-reported brain health is no different for those who take any type of supplements now, in the past, or have never taken them. In fact, adults who have never taken a supplement for a brain-related reason are more likely to say their brain health is very good compared to those who took a supplement in the past.
While there are no known benefits of supplements on brain health, there are some risks, including safety and purity of the ingredients. Because dietary supplements are not considered medications, they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means they can be sold without review of their safety and truthfulness of their claims. However, your health provider may recommend supplements if you are nutrient-deficient or at risk of becoming so.
The GCPH challenges consumers to be critical of claims such as “clinically shown to help with mild memory problems associated with aging” and “scientifically proven nutrients for a healthier brain.”
Going forward, the GCBH highlighted some practical tips:
- Discuss any supplements you are taking, and their possible risks, benefits, and interactions with your health provider(s).
- Before taking a supplement, ask yourself whether you are already getting enough nutrients through your diet or a multivitamin.
- Consider if the claims of the supplements benefits are supported by high quality research.
- Remember more is not always better! Some vitamins and other ingredients can be toxic at high levels.
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Beware of claims to improve brain health or memory, make you smarter, or cure a disease.
Penn Memory Center Co-Director Dr. Jason Karlawish is a member of the GCBH Governance Committee.