What’s the Truth about Memory and Other Supplements?

Vital Signs Winter 2024
Dr. glazier and Dr. Ko

“Ask the Doctors” is a nationally syndicated column written by Eve Glazier, MD, president of the UCLA Health Faculty Practice Group, and Elizabeth Ko, MD, medical director of the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative.  

DEAR DOCTORS: What is your opinion of the brain and memory supplements that we see advertised on TV? I'm also curious about other supplements, like the ones that are advertised to help with vision and also for joint health. Do any really help? 

DEAR READER: Consumers are inundated with ads for a wide array of supplements that manufacturers claim can slow some of the effects of aging. And small wonder, these products are big business. The worldwide market for memory supplements alone, which in 2023 hit $9.9 billion — yes, that's billion with a “b” — is expected to more than triple in the coming decade. Other popular supplements include those to improve joint health and safeguard vision.  

Let's begin with the so-called brain supplements, which ads suggest can improve memory, concentration and focus. Their ingredients typically include chemical compounds that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anticoagulant properties. Read the labels and you'll see lion’s mane mushroom, ginseng, gingko biloba, lutein, turmeric, B vitamins, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids in various forms, combinations and concentrations. Some products get a bit more exotic, including one based on a protein found in jellyfish. A few small studies have found a tenuous connection between some of these ingredients and benefits to memory. However, the results of larger scale and more rigorous research into whether memory supplements are helpful continue to be inconclusive.  

Studies into the efficacy of joint supplements, which typically include glucosamine and chondroitin, have also had conflicting results. Based on the research thus far, it's not possible to say if they are effective. When it comes to certain supplements for eyesight, however, there is better news. Two major clinical trials, known as AREDS and AREDS2, have shown that a specific combination of vitamins and minerals can slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration. However, these supplements do not prevent someone from developing the disease. These supplements bear the AREDS name. (AREDS is short for Age-Related Eye Disease Studies.)  

When working with our own patients, we don't actively discourage them from taking a supplement. After all, the placebo effect can also be quite powerful. But we do make clear that a supplement is exactly that, an add-on to a healthy lifestyle. It is not meant to replace the measures we know are proven to stall aging and promote memory. Those are (and we're sure this is news to no one) regular physical activity, optimal nutrition, adequate sleep and robust social connections. Cognitive exercises, successfully managing blood pressure and blood sugar levels and limiting cardiovascular risk factors are also known to reduce dementia risk. 

Some supplements can cause side effects, such as stomach upset, headache or nausea. Others can interact with medications. For instance, St. John's wort can speed the breakdown of heart medications, antidepressants and birth control pills, which renders them less effective. Vitamin K can interfere with the effects of warfarin, a blood thinner used to prevent blood clots. When someone wants to start taking a supplement, it is always wise to first check in with his or her doctor. 

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