Experts: Memory loss pills have questionable benefits, won’t prevent dementia

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Experts: Memory loss pills have questionable benefits, won't prevent dementia

Omega-3 and other supplements may boost memory but it may be better to get them through diet than over-the-counter supplements, experts say. Photo by frolicsomepl/Pixabay

With millions of adults in the United States who experience memory loss, the greater availability nutritional supplements that target improved brain function comes as no surprise, experts told UPI.

And as a result of increasing demand, “dozens and dozens” of over-the-counter supplements promise to enhance memory, including mass-marketed consumer brands such as Quincy Bioscience’s Prevagen, said Dr. Douglas Scharre, a neurologist who specializes in memory disorders.

However, while these products may boost levels of certain nutrients associated with brain function and memory, their real-world effects vary, he said.

“People have been using supplements for memory boosting for hundreds of years, and some are so common you find them for sale in a grocery store,” Scharre, director of the Center for Cognitive and Memory Disorders at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, told UPI in a phone interview.

“The truth is, for some people, these products may provide some benefit, but for most they do not,” he said.

Worse, although these products are generally safe, and have few if any significant side effects, there is a danger in people using them to “self-medicate memory problems” without undergoing a medical evaluation to identify the root cause, said Anne L. Hume, a pharmacist and researcher who specializes in geriatric medicine.

“That’s definitely a concern, because these supplements aren’t going to help you if you’re experiencing memory loss as a result of Alzheimer’s disease, sleep apnea or another disorder,” Scharre said.

“By all means, if you’re experiencing memory loss or feel like your brain isn’t working right, go get checked out,” he said.

Many afflicted

More than 6.5 million people nationally have Alzheimer’s disease, according to figures from the Alzheimer’s Association released earlier this year.

In addition, nearly 20% of adults 60 years and older have “mild cognitive impairment,” a form of memory loss that may be a precursor to dementia, the same report found.

This is significant, given that nearly one-fourth of the population of the United States is in this age group, according to data from the 2020 U.S. census. The national population is expected to include nearly 80 million people in this age group by 2034, the census estimates.

Perhaps as a result, sales of over-the-counter supplements that promise improved memory generated more than $730 million in sales in 2020, a figure that is expected to increase by nearly 9% over the coming decade, according to a report from Grandview Research.

“Memory loss has always been a concern for people as they age,” Hume, a professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, told UPI in a phone interview.

“Lots of people are taking these supplements because they want to prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia,” she said.

What’s in them?

Given the sheer number of supplements promising memory-boosting benefits on the market, it is difficult to make general statements about their ingredients or how they work.

However, most of them typically contain vitamins and other nutrients that have been linked with brain function and memory, Scharre said.

These include vitamins C, D and E, as well omega-3 fatty acids and curcumin, a plant-based herb, he said.

In addition, some contain phospholipids, which are known to provide “protection” to nerve cells in the brain, enabling them to function better and faster, with others include acetylcholine, a chemical found in brain cells, Scharre said.

Huperzine, a compound used historically in Chinese medicine to improve memory, is another common ingredient, Hume said.

Prevagen, perhaps the best-known of the supplements, thanks to widespread advertising on television and elsewhere, contains vitamin D and apoaequorin, a protein found in jellyfish that has been found to improve brain function.

In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission charged Quincy Bioscience, which makes Prevagen, with making “false and unsubstantiated claims that the product improves memory, provides cognitive benefits and is ‘clinically shown’ to work,” and that legal case is pending.

But buying products specifically to aid memory might not be necessary, experts said.

“The brain absolutely needs good nutrition and if you’re deficient in any of these vitamins, due to diet, then these supplements may help you,” Scharre said. “But many of these nutrients can also be obtained through diet.”

For this reason, he and his colleagues rarely recommend memory-loss supplements, preferring instead to suggest specific vitamins or dietary changes for their patients who are experiencing normal, age-related declines in brain function, he said.

“Vitamins are also usually cheaper than many of these branded supplements,” Scharre said.

Having said that, most neurologists won’t recommend against using these supplements in patients with age-related memory loss, because they are generally safe, he said.

Meanwhile, the Alzheimer’s Association does not mention any specific supplements in its recommendations, but cautions against their use generally, citing a lack of scientific evidence.

For people already taking memory-loss supplements, they should be sure to tell their healthcare team, including their pharmacists, to ensure that they are not potentially exposing themselves to dangerous interactions with other medications they’re using, Hume said.

Those taking them also shouldn’t view these products as a potential treatment for memory loss caused by a specific disorder.

Sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that occurs during sleep and disrupts oxygen flow to the brain, can cause memory loss and should be diagnosed by a medical professional, he said.

It can also be treated with prescription medication, Scharre said.

In addition, although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia in the United States and a leading cause of memory loss, prescription medications can improve brain function and/or slow symptoms, he said.

“You wouldn’t take a supplement if you’re having trouble breathing, so you shouldn’t if you’re experiencing a brain disorder that’s causing memory loss,” Sharre said.

“There are so many prescription treatment options, even for Alzheimer’s, and they work better the earlier you take them, so it makes sense to get checked out right away if you’re experiencing memory problems.”

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