Brain health supplements may not be worth the millions spent

Supplements that purport to preserve or boost memory and cognition are not worth the millions that older adults spend on them every year, according to a recent report by the American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP) Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

“Supplements for brain health appear to be a huge waste of money for the 25% of adults over 50 who take them,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and GCBH executive director.

The report, released on June 11, 2019, analyzed existing studies on brain health supplements that claim to boost cognition and memory, including fish oil; omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alphalinoleic acid (ALA); caffeine; ginkgo biloba; and apoaequorin (jellyfish), among others.

Researchers found that there is not enough scientific evidence to support recommending any type of brain health supplement for most adults. The exceptions are patients with vitamin or nutrient deficiencies, particularly in vitamin B12, folate (vitamin B9), and vitamin D, which are linked to problems with cognitive function, including thinking skills and memory, and can be related to GI absorption problems influenced by aging. The report does note, however, that some small studies have shown DHA supplements benefit patients who already have mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the 2019 AARP Brain Health and Dietary Supplements Survey, approximately 26% of Americans ages 50 years and older regularly take supplements for brain health. Of these people, 21% do so to maintain brain health, 20% to improve brain health, 11% to delay the onset of dementia, and 8% to reverse dementia.

Indeed, supplements marketed for brain health have becoming increasingly popular worldwide, generating $3 billion in sales globally in 2016 and projected to reach $5.8 billion in 2023. In the United States alone, sales of brain health supplements nearly doubled from 2006 to 2015, reaching $643 million in 2015. According to an AARP analysis of spending on six different supplements marketed for brain health, Americans older than 50 years spend more than $93 million a month on these products alone. 

In accordance with the report’s findings, GCBH recommends that patients get the nutrients necessary for brain health from a balanced, healthy diet rather than from supplements. The report notes, for instance, that a few studies have shown that those who eat fatty fish and other types of seafood have a lower risk of declining memory and thinking skills, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, but that this benefit is not shown with consumption of omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

GCBH also recommends that patients talk to their health care provider before starting any supplement for their brain health. Patients and providers should be mindful that dietary supplements are not subject to review by FDA for safety and effectiveness before being sold. Extra steps should be taken to verify the quality of scientific evidence about the supplements’ effectiveness, purity, and quality. They should also check the supplements’ ingredients and label information because product labels may not reflect actual ingredients or amounts.

GCBH encourages health care providers to routinely ask patients about their use of any dietary supplements, as well as evaluate and treat patients for any vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may affect memory and cognition. For patients without these deficiencies, providers should recommend a healthy lifestyle and dietary interventions rather than dietary supplements to promote brain health.

For the full article, please visit for the September 2019 issue of Pharmacy Today.