Brain Health and Dietary Supplements: Where’s the Evidence?

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Various colorful pills and supplements on white background
Various colorful pills and supplements on white background

Effectiveness Is Unproven

The Global Council on Brain Health does not recommend any dietary supplement for brain health. Despite a lack of evidence that vitamins and dietary supplements actually boost brain health, large majorities of adults believe that they are at least somewhat effective in maintaining brain health or improving mental sharpness, according to new AARP research, and nearly half feel supplements are at least somewhat effective in reversing dementia.

The majority of adults surveyed view vitamins and dietary supplements positively, with 78% saying they are extremely or somewhat important to health, but supplements are more popular among older adults. Three-quarters of respondents in the Silent and Greatest generations (76%) currently take vitamins or dietary supplements, compared with roughly half of Gen Xers (58%), and Millennials and Gen Z (43%). More than one-third of adults in the oldest generations take a supplement with the mistaken belief that it will help maintain or improve brain health or delay or reverse dementia.

Though the adults surveyed seem to embrace supplements, AARP found that they do have concerns about effectiveness (46%), safety and purity (44%), thoroughness of government review (40%), and cost (34%). In fact, many adults mistakenly believe that the federal government regulates these products. In reality, the Food and Drug Administration can only challenge their value once they are on the market.

Where, then, are adults getting their (mis)information about vitamins and dietary supplements? Those late-night TV commercials spring to mind: A fast-talking voiceover promises this or that exotic supplement will work miracles on whatever ails you. But AARP found that most respondents are getting their information from reputable sources. More than six in ten cited doctors, nutritionists, and pharmacists as their sources, just one in ten cited the media, and even fewer relied on advertisements.

Healthy Lifestyle Choices Matter

Most adults ages 18 and older report that their brain health and their overall health are both excellent or very good. These attitudes hold regardless of whether the respondent currently uses supplements or has ever used them. In general terms, current or past use of supplements does not seem to affect self-reported brain or overall health, though about a third of adults surveyed believe that taking supplements improves health.

Though they have misplaced faith in vitamins and dietary supplements, adults surveyed do recognize the importance of healthy lifestyle choices. About half of all adults acknowledge that getting enough sleep, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy diet are extremely important for health.

One choice, however, did affect self-reported brain health. Adults who eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables report better brain health, regardless of whether they take supplements. Moreover, adults who meet dietary guidelines also tend to have other healthy habits (e.g., socializing, exercise, getting enough sleep).

As it turns out, the old advice is still the best: Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get plenty of sleep, and you’ll actually feel better.

Methodology

The findings are based on an online survey of 2,292 Americans over age 18 conducted in January and February 2019.

For more information about this report, please contact Laura Mehegan at lmehegan@aarp.org. For media inquiries, please contact media@aarp.org.

Suggested Citation:

Mehegan, Laura, and Chuck Rainville. 2019 AARP Brain Health and Dietary Supplements Survey. Washington, DC: AARP Research, June 2019. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00318.001