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Dietary supplements that claim to boost brain health are a waste of money — and potentially harmful — experts say

Each year, about 23,000 Americans are treated in hospital emergency rooms for side effects related to known and unknown ingredients in dietary supplements.

brain-health supplements
American consumers spent an estimated $3 billion on brain-health supplements in 2016.
Photo by Elliot L'Angelier on Unsplash

The more than a quarter of Americans over the age of 50 who take a dietary supplement to improve their brain health are not only wasting their money, they may also be putting their health at risk, according to a report released this month by a panel of experts convened by AARP.

For the report, an international team of independent neurologists, nutritionists and researchers reviewed the best available studies on the impact of various dietary supplements on people’s memory or other cognitive functions as they age.

They found no good evidence that any of the products worked.

The analysis included vitamin and mineral supplements, especially those containing the eight B vitamins and vitamins D and E, as well as other products commonly marketed for brain health, such as apoaequorin (a jellyfish protein), coenzyme Q10, turmeric/curcumin, ginkgo biloba, melatonin and omega-3 fatty acid capsules.

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“People taking these pills are spending between $20 and $60 a month and flushing dollars down the toilet that could be better spent on things that actually improve their brain health,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, a senior vice president at AARP, in a released statement. Lock is also executive director of the AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, the group of experts who wrote the report.

The amount of money being wasted on so-called brain-health supplements is quite large. The report notes that American consumers spent an estimated $3 billion on these products in 2016. That number is expected to grow to $5.8 billion by 2023.

Safety concerns

As the report points out, unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — or any other agency — for their effectiveness or safety before they go on the market.

The FDA and other agencies “can only take enforcement action against unsubstantiated or false claims once the product is already on the market,” the authors of the new report explain. “This situation may lead many people to have a false sense of security when it comes to taking dietary supplements they find on store shelves or online.”

Indeed, an AARP survey taken earlier this year found almost half of older adults mistakenly believe that the FDA tests supplements before they are sold.

This lack of pre-sale regulation means products can contain ingredients that are harmful — and, in some cases, even deadly — to consumers. As I’ve reported here before, some dietary supplements have been found to contain actual pharmaceutical drugs, such as sibutramine, which raises blood pressure, and fluoxetine, which has been linked to suicidal thoughts, abnormal bleeding and seizures. Consumers have no way of knowing that those drugs are in the supplements, however, because they are not listed on the products’ labels.

Each year, about 23,000 Americans are treated in hospital emergency rooms for side effects related to known and unknown ingredients in dietary supplements.

Another major concern about the safety of dietary supplements is their potential for having a harmful interaction with medications and other medical treatments. As the authors of the new report point out, taking supplements with vitamin K can, for example, decrease the effectiveness of blood thinners used to treat cardiovascular disease, and antioxidant vitamins such as C and E may reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy. In addition, herbal supplements, including echinacea, ginseng, valerian, saw palmetto and St. John’s wort, can increase risks during surgery.

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Caveat emptor

Before you waste your money on dietary supplements, the experts who put together the report urge you to consider these points:

  1. Rather than turning to supplements to boost brain health, choose foods known to support a healthy brain. [According to an earlier report by the same group of experts, these foods include berries (not juice), fresh vegetables (especially leafy greens), healthy fats (such as those found in extra virgin olive oil), nuts (in moderation because of their calories), and fish and seafood.]
  2. Consult your health care provider if you are considering taking a supplement, and ask about the risks, benefits and medication interactions. We do not recommend taking dietary supplements for brain health unless your health care provider has determined you are nutrient-deficient or are at risk of becoming so (i.e., for reasons of deficiencies caused by diet, lifestyle, certain surgeries or other health issues).
  3. Carefully check ingredients and information on supplement labels. Be aware that product labels may not reflect the actual ingredients or their amounts in the supplements. Products often contain less or more of what they claim. In some cases, there may be additional ingredients not listed on the label at all, some of which may be harmful to your health.
  4. Verify the quality of evidence about the product’s effectiveness, purity and quality. [The report offers tips on how to do this.]
  5. If you are experiencing significant memory loss, consult your health care provider, who may wish to check your folate and B12 levels. Individuals should follow their health care provider’s advice to make sure the supplements taken are appropriate to address their specific deficiency or problem. Make sure you do not take too much of any of the B vitamins and check to see if the foods you eat are already fortified with them. If your health care provider advises that you take folic acid, ask whether you should take it with vitamin B12. Vitamin B “complex” supplements contain different mixtures of B-vitamins at different doses, not all of which are needed by a particular individual.
  6. Although caffeine may provide some short-term benefits in mental alertness and focus, caffeine supplements in the form of energy drinks and pills may carry health risks and are not recommended.

You can read the report in full on AARP’s website.