Your Health

Save your money, honey: Supplements for brain health show no true benefits

Here’s a pre-emptive warning for teens: Supplements taken to boost brain health show no benefit, so be aware as you age.

According to Statistica, the health and wellness industry is booming, with annual revenue exceeding $300 billion, and the supplement industry is projected to reach to $31 billion in sales by the end of 2019.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition reveals that 75% of Americans across all age groups use a dietary supplement, with greater usage with age, as they believe supplements play an important role in supporting a healthy lifestyle.

The average adult spends $80-plus annually on supplements. Centrum Silver, owned by Pfizer and aimed at consumers over 50 years old, is the second leading named brand in terms of sales, with a focus on supplements for coronary heart disease, diabetes, age-related eye disease and osteoporosis.

Baby boomers are increasingly aware and concerned about neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 5.8 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a number expected to double every five years.

The increasing prevalence of memory disease and awareness is leading to a growing demand for “brain health” supplements, with sales estimated at $3 billion annually. Research published by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent collaborative of scientists, doctors, scholars and policy experts, reported no significant benefits for the aging brain from such supplements.

Despite the advertising claims from the wellness industry of the preventive benefits of brain supplements, no evidence has been found to support their claims to prevent, slow, reverse or stop the cognitive decline and deficits associated with neurological disorders.

The recommendation for those concerned about their aging brain is to focus on a nutrient-rich, healthy diet.

The GCBH and AARP suggest that the $20 to $60 monthly spent on supplements be directed instead to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables that will provide all of the necessary ingredients for overall brain health.

Consumers beware

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not consider supplements in the same light as prescription medications, and the supplements lack independent legitimate scientific research to support their claims. The only requirement by the FDA is that supplements be tested for safety, not efficacy, as they can be purchased without a prescription.

Consumers must be aware that supplements such as ginkgo biloba that claim to “maintain good brain health” do not equate to preventive treatment or treatment for disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. The FDA recommends a supplement for the very few people with vitamin B6, B9 (folate) or B12 deficiency (for example, those on a vegan diet).

Approximately 5-15% of older Americans have a gut that is less able to absorb B12, leading to a deficiency (diagnosed with a blood test). In this case, a physician may treat with a B12 injection, as the absorption problem would remain if a capsule supplement were given. The body is not able to store extra vitamins and flushes them out through the urine. Excess doses of vitamins A, D, E and K can lead to toxicity.

The GCBH reported on independent research that found a reduced overall risk of thinking and memory deficits, and Alzheimer’s disease, in older adults with a diet that included seafood, as it is rich in DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid), but with limited evidence for those taking a supplement.

Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She aims to help teens understand themselves by using the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes those explanations on her website, teenbrain.info.

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