This morning, the Global Counsel on Brain Health released a report concluding that dietary supplements do not improve brain health or prevent cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. The report, released by the AARP, flatly recommends that most consumers do not take supplements for this purpose.
“The GCBH reviewed the scientific evidence on various supplements and determined it could not endorse any ingredient, production, or formulation designed for brain health,” the AARP said in a press release.
Brain health supplements netted $3 billion in sales in 2016 and is estimated to earn $5.8 billion by 2023. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, 69 percent of adults ages 50 and older are currently taking a dietary supplement at least three times a week and eight percent say they’re taking one to “reverse dementia.”
This is impossible, according to the report. But many consumers are steered toward this false hope because of misleading information on the part of supplement marketing.
Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA, yet 49 percent of older adults in the U.S. believe the FDA approves dietary supplements as safe and effective before they’re sold, according to a 2019 study by AARP.
Under FDA law, it’s illegal for dietary supplement companies to make any claim that their product can treat, prevent, or cure a disease. If a supplement marketer wants to say their product can reduce the risk of a disease, they must notify the FDA first and get authorization before such a claim can go on a product label.
This year alone, the FDA sent warning labels to multiple supplement companies specifically claiming to treat Alzheimer’s disease, according to the GCBH report. All of the claims below were cited by the GCBH as misleading:
A dietary supplement that has been clinically shown to help with mild memory problems associated with aging
Clinically shown to be safe and support memory and brain function
Clinically proven natural ingredients
Supports neurotransmitter development to promote a feeling of mental sharpness
Helps your brain maintain healthy neurons to support learning and recall
13 scientifically proven nutrients for a healthier brain
Keeps your mind sharp and memory strong with an ingredient that’s clinically shown to improve memory and recall in healthy adults. It’s powered by the #1 most clinically studied ingredient for memory among leading brain health supplements
Has shown statistically significant improvements in memory and recall in as little as 4 weeks when taken as directed
To Improve and Boost Brain Power, Mind, Concentration & Energy For Health Brain Function & Support
Enhance memory, concentration, focus, mental clarity, and learning abilities
Designed to help improve memory while increasing focus and concentration
Comprehensive blend of vitamins, amino acids, and herbal extracts that support the brain’s structure and function to deliver amazing improvements in memory and concentration!
Give your brain the compounds it needs to help keep your mind bright, clever and strong
Help lessen the frequency of episodes of forgetfulness and brain fog
Improve your ability to retain and recall various kinds of information
For Cognitive Health, Memory Improvement, Memory Enhancement
These key nutrients have a powerful effect at reducing the inflammatory fires that destroy our brain tissue.
It aids in improving connectivity between neurons and brain cells. It’s shown positive effects for improving memory, reaction times, and clarity of thought.
A highly esteemed Ayurvedic herb with a history of use that goes back over 3,000 years. Legend has it that it was used by ancient scholars to memorize length hymns and scriptures.
It’s needed for over 300 metabolic functions and has profound effects on brain and mental health.
If you see any of the claims above on the product label of a brain health supplement, you should consider it misleading and immediately talk to your doctor about whether it should be part of your regimen.
Beyond misleading claims, because dietary supplement companies aren’t regulated by the FDA, neither are its ingredients or dosages. The report therefore warns that supplements “may have too much, too little, or, in some cases, none of the ingredients [consumers] think they’re buying.”
This can have dire consequences. The AARP cites a 2013 report from the U.S. government which found that the FDA received more than 6,000 reports of health problems due to dietary supplements between 2008 and 2011. They included 92 deaths and more than 1,000 series injuries. As part of the FDA’s investigation, they found “dangerous fungi, pesticides, environmental pollutants, and heavy metals in some products.” Worse, the FDA found that more than 700 dietary supplements contained prescription drugs, including steroids and antidepressants.
While some people may look at brain health supplements and think, “Why not...it can’t hurt?” It can, because the ease of swallowing a pill may cause consumers to skip methods that are effective.
“It’s tempting to think you can pop a pill and prevent dementia, but the science says that doesn’t work,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP Senior Vice President for Policy and Executive Director of the GCBH. “We know what will keep your brain healthy: exercise, a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, challenging your thinking skills, and connecting with others.”
Michael Lewis, MD, founder and president of the Brain Health Education and Research Institute and author of When Brains Collide, agrees. "There is no substitute for the basics we were supposed to learn early in life: diet, exercise, and socialization," he told Prevention.com previously. "Study after study tells us that regular, intense exercise is good for the brain and helps us age better. There just isn’t anything better for brain health than increasing blood flow to the brain and that should be a daily occurrence."