According to a 2001 University of Michigan study, most people begin experiencing some memory loss and decline in mental energy as soon as their mid-20s, although it’s often not until people reach their 50s that this mental decline becomes more apparent.
However, a good memory is an integral part of living a healthy, productive life, so regardless of when it begins, you’ll certainly want to address it as soon as it begins.
This is why, whether you’re a college student, a busy professional, or are simply worried about memory loss as you get older, you’ve very likely heard about nutritional supplements that claim to boost your brain power and to prevent age-related mental decline.
While these types of supplements have been around for years, they’ve recently experienced a huge surge in popularity after being discussed on the popular daytime TV show Dr. Oz show in February 2012, where he claimed that brain supplements can help “make your brain 10 years younger,” which was the topic of his show again in October of that same year.
But what exactly are these brain-boosting supplements, and how do they claim to work? Is there any scientific evidence supporting these claims? Are they worth your hard-earned money, and what should you look for if you’ve decided to buy one?
In this article, we’ll demystify brain-boosting supplements, as well as provide you with actionable advice that you can immediately put to good use. With this in mind, let’s first take a look at what brain supplements are and how they claim to help.
What Is a Brain Supplement?
Whether they’re called brain boosters, smart drugs, memory enhancers, or nootropics, brain supplements have one thing in common: They all claim to help improve your brain’s function and/or to prevent age-related memory loss through a combination of ingredients.
And while severe memory loss requires a physician’s intervention, most over the counter brain supplements are targeted at those of us who function normally but need a little “boost” throughout the day, or who have started noticing that we’ve become more forgetful as we’ve gotten older.
It’s important to remember (no pun intended) that memory supplements don’t provide you with a magical increase in cognition.
Instead, they claim to enhance the mental abilities you already have—similar to how a protein supplement can help your muscles perform better during a workout, and to then repair themselves more quickly afterward.
With this in mind, some of the most common ingredients used in memory supplements include:
Choline – An essential nutrient that, if deficient, may play a role some neurological disorders.
Ginkgo biloba – Has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain.
Omega-3 fatty acid – The essential ingredients in Omega 3, DHA, and EPA, may have beneficial effects for gradual memory loss and protection against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Huperzine A – Derived from Chinese club moss, this substance may help promote memory and enhance learning abilities, while also helping to prevent age-related memory loss and treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Acetyl-L-carnitine – An amino acid that helps your body produce energy, which may be beneficial in treating memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
Vitamin E – A fat-soluble vitamin that may help combat brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Vitamin B12 – A water-soluble vitamin that may help protect against brain volume loss as we age.
Asian (or Panax) ginseng – A plant used in traditional Chinese medicine that may help improve memory and concentration.
Some brain-boosting supplements may contain these ingredients individually, while others may feature them as part of a proprietary blend. We’ll discuss this more thoroughly in the What Should You Look for When Buying a Memory Supplement section.
Now that you know a little more about the ingredients included in most brain boosting supplements, let’s find out whether or not they’ve been shown to work.
What Does Science Say About Brain Supplements? Do They Really Work?
Before digging into the science behind memory supplements, it’s important to note that each individual product you come across will claim to affect your brain in different ways and to provide you with a variety benefits.
For example, some brain-boosting supplements, claim to focus on total brain nutrition, while others, claim to focus more on mental acuity.
Whichever ingredients they use and whatever benefits they claim to provide though, the most important thing to keep in mind is that, according to WebMD, “most [brain supplements] are lacking research to support their memory-enhancing claims.”
This ABC News article puts it more bluntly, “There is no current evidence provided by rigorous double-blind placebo controlled clinical trials that any of these substances can improve memory in the aging brain.”
So how do these brain supplements manufacturers get away with making these big claims?
As we mentioned in our Nutritional Supplements Buyer’s Guide, the supplements industry is not subject to FDA oversight, which means that they can essentially make any claim they like, without necessarily having to provide evidence to back them up.
On top of this, supplements manufacturers are on their own when verifying the efficacy and purity of their products, which is not something that all of them do.
The only requirement supplement manufacturers have is to include the following disclaimer: “The statements on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. Products mentioned on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease and do not replace medical advice.”
Things to Consider Before You Buy a Memory Supplement
Lack of scientific evidence notwithstanding, memory supplements represent a huge market segment in the industry, and don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. If you’ve decided to give a brain-boosting supplement a try, here are five pointers that you can use in order to choose the best one.
Step 1: Talk With Your Physician
As with any new supplement you’re thinking about taking, the first person you should speak with is your physician. This is because they’ll often be familiar with some of the more popular memory supplements on the market, as well as how they may interact based on your current medications and your medical history.
In fact, if you’ve narrowed your decision down to only a couple supplements, be sure to learn as much about them as you can, and then present this to your doctor.
Step 2: Does the Manufacturer Back Up Their Claims?
With this in mind, one of the first things you should do after landing on a brain supplement’s webpage is to find out what their claims are, and then to locate supporting documentation on their website.
As we mentioned above, the FDA does not require these companies to back up their claims, so those that do are going above and beyond these requirements in order to support the efficacy of their supplements.
In addition, providing evidence also shows that these manufacturers stand behind their product and the claims they make about it.
» For Further Reading: How to Safely Buy Supplements Online
Step 3: Find Out Exactly What’s in the Brain Supplement
Another key piece of information that needs to be included on any brain supplement’s website is a full ingredients list and/or product label. After all, this is something you’ll be putting in your body, and you deserve to know exactly what’s in it.
Unfortunately, many supplements websites do not include this information, or may even list ingredients as a “proprietary blend,” which then allows them to list their ingredients but not how much of them their supplements contain.
In addition, be sure to find out whether or not a memory supplement is manufactured in an FDA approved and GMP certified facility, as well as if they’re submitted to third-party testing in order to verify efficacy and potency.
Step 4: Learn What Other Consumers Have to Say
Outside of the manufacturer’s website, you should also thoroughly search online for other customer reviews about the brain supplement you’re thinking about purchasing, and a great place to start is here at HighYa. This way, you can get direct feedback from other individuals just like you, while learning about their experiences with the product.
While the most common customer complaints associated with brain supplements are failure to work and high price, it’s important that you learn to differentiate between legitimate customer reviews and those found on affiliate websites. This is because the former are meant to make you a more informed consumer, while the latter are simply intended to mislead you.
» For Further Reading: How to Spot Fake Online Reviews and Websites When Buying a Supplement
Step 5: Avoid Autoship Programs & Free Trials
Finally, if you ultimately decide to pull the trigger and purchase a brain-boosting supplement, avoid manufacturers who offer free trials and autoship programs, as these are almost always intended to separate you from as much of your hard-earned money as possible.
If you see either of these offered on a supplement you’re thinking about purchasing, remember that these can immediately tell you just how little faith these manufacturers have in their brain supplements.
Natural Ways for Improving Brain Function
There are just as many causes of memory loss as there are types of mental decline, although some of the most common include normal aging, certain types of medication, lack of sleep, poor diet and exercise habits, and alcohol and tobacco use. This is in addition to more obvious causes such as head trauma, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Regardless of what’s causing your memory loss though, there are a variety of methods you can use to help boost your brainpower and to avoid mental decline while avoiding brain-boosting supplements altogether.
Most of these relate to maintaining good health, including reducing the number of medications you’re taking, quitting smoking and excessive alcohol use, controlling blood pressure and diabetes, making sure you get a good night’s sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, and watching your weight.
In fact, according to this Harvard University article, “My strongest recommendations [for improving brain function] are a Mediterranean-style diet and regular physical exercise.”
On top of physical exercise, there are several websites that feature brain games and activities that are claimed to help boost your brain’s power, and to keep it strong as you age, some of the most popular of which are Lumosity and Posit Science.