Memory-boosting pills have no real benefit
Q: What's with all the ads for brain-enhancing products? Prevagen is one that claims it's been clinically proven to help, but my family doctor says that it hasn't. Who's right? Do these products actually help with memory issues?
A: More than one-third of the United States population is now aged 50 and older, a time of life when people start noticing changes to memory and the ability to learn. With each momentary lapse -- fumbling for a word or forgetting a name -- people are reminded of their aging brains. It's not surprising that a multibillion-dollar industry in brain health supplements has sprung up.
These products promise not only to preserve and enhance memory, but to sharpen focus, boost attention spans, lift moods and increase creativity. Supplements marketed as brain boosters typically include omega-3 fatty acids, certain B vitamins, vitamin E, ginseng and ginkgo biloba extract. However, despite decades of study into whether these substances actually work to preserve or enhance brain health and functioning, the research remains inconclusive.
When it comes to Prevagen, a memory supplement derived from jellyfish, the parent company's advertising claims led the Federal Trade Commission to charge it with fraud in early 2017. That legal battle is ongoing. Meanwhile, since the product is marketed as a supplement, it doesn't have to undergo Food and Drug Administration testing for safety or review for efficacy. It's also free from a range of FDA scrutiny and oversight.
You're correct that the company's marketing cites positive results from a clinical study. But critics point out that these claims arise from selective use of data drawn from a single study, which was carried out in-house by the parent company of the product. In that study, the product and a placebo were found to be equally effective.
Until the day that science develops a real brain pill, we advise our patients to preserve their cognitive health the old-fashioned way. That is, eat right, control blood pressure, get enough sleep and exercise regularly. A diet that focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish, whole grains, legumes and healthful fats has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic disease, including heart disease. That's important because heart disease, as well as uncontrolled high blood pressure, have been linked to cognitive impairment later in life.
Research has also repeatedly drawn a connection between regular exercise and cognition. Not only does a mix of aerobic exercise, weight training and stretching improve strength, balance, endurance and mood, it has been shown to help the brain maintain existing neural connections, and to build new ones. With just 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day, you'll exceed the federal guidelines for adults, which recommend about 150 minutes per week.
One final piece of the cognitive health puzzle is ongoing social interaction. Recent research suggests that adults who have regular contact with other people have better memory and preserve their cognitive abilities to a greater degree than do adults who are solitary.
• Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.