The Science Behind Brain Supplements Is Constantly Advancing And New Research Is Helping To Find Real Benefits For Those In Need
Few things are more unnerving than the memory lapses most of us experience as we grow older. Younger people forget things all the time, of course, but for their elders these lapses (the mislaid word, name, key or to-do list) call up the threat of permanent memory loss, as in Alzheimer’s disease, possibly the most feared of all disorders.
There are lots of dietary supplements marketed to improve memory. All sorts of herbs (notably ginkgo), vitamins and fish oil, as well as countless cocktails of herbs and other ingredients, come with bold claims that they aid memory and mental ability.
Some are better than others, but here’s a rundown of the latest scientific evidence about some of the most widely promoted ingredients.
This derivative of the Asian plant Bacopa monnieri has been used in ancient Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine for centuries as a “brain tonic.”
Found in many foods (especially egg yolk, liver, meat and fish) and now classified as a nutrient, choline is essential for brain development in the fetus. Some evidence shows that those who get a high level of dietary choline early in life may be more intelligent and better retain their mental ability.
This stands for dimethylaminoethanol, which is chemically related to choline.
Fish oil supplements
Fish has long been called a brain food, and it’s been theorized that the omega-3 fats in fish oil are beneficial for brain function. Some evidence suggests that fish oil supplements help slow cognitive decline in healthy people.
One of the best-selling products in the U.S. for memory loss, ginkgo is an ingredient in many so-called brain boosters. It comes from the maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) and is widely prescribed in Europe for “cerebral insufficiency,” which can mean anything from confusion to depression and anxiety.
Derived from a type of Chinese moss, Huperzia serrata, this supplement is supposed to boost certain brain chemicals in somewhat the same way as some prescription drugs, such as Aricept and tacrine (Cognex), approved for use in Alzheimer’s patients. These drugs, in any case, have only a modest and brief effect.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a type of fat found in brain cells, as well as other cells in plants and animals. The Memory Cure, a perennial bestseller, touts PS supplements as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s. Derived from cow brain until the advent of mad cow disease, PS is now extracted from soy.
A synthetic version of an extract from a type of periwinkle plant, this drug is approved in Europe for treating dementia, but sold as a supplement in the US.
A deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause confusion and memory loss, and may be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s. In such cases, large doses of B12, under a doctor’s supervision, may help. Other vitamins, while generally good for you, aren't directly associated with benefiting the brain.
More Brain Supplement Info
Memory is a complicated phenomenon, affected by genetics, physiological changes, emotions, education and experience. The cause of age-related memory loss remains largely a mystery. Often healthy eating and regular exercise are helpful simply because they tend to keep other health issues (such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity), which tend to trigger brain issues, at bay.
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