Worldwide millions are spent on dietary supplements for boosting ‘brain health,’ but there’s tiny proof they work, and some may be harmful.
When it’s about brain health, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about the role nutritional supplements, including vitamins and minerals, may play. That’s essentially the conclusion of a new report, published in 2019 — “The Real Deal on Brain Health Supplements” — developed by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars, and policy experts founded by the AARP to explore issues related to cognitive function and aging.
Supplements May Help, but No One Really Knows
“The aim of the report is really to promote the appropriate use of nutritional supplements,” says report coauthor Howard Fillit, MD, founding director and chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) in New York City.
“Supplement manufacturers aren’t required to test their products through clinical trials, like [prescription and over-the-counter] drugmakers are, and current regulations on labeling allow them to be much less specific about what their products are actually designed to do,” Dr. Fillit says.
Several of the more than 85,000 types of dietary supplements sold in the United States in 2018, according to a supplement report published in 2018 by Nutrition Business Journal, promise to support “brain health,” but are often not clear on just how they work and what ingredients are included.
However, the GCBH report doesn’t conclude definitively that these products don’t work; rather, it highlights that there’s a lack of clear scientific data supporting that they actually do.
“These products are expensive, and they may not be needed and potentially even harmful,” Fillit explains. “Many people may not know this, for example, that some of these products may affect how the prescription medications they’re taking are metabolized. The report tries to reach a summary of what evidence there is showing any benefit to taking these products.”
Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Vitamins B12 and D Show Brain Benefits
Definitely the most clear-cut findings in the report concern omega-3 fatty acids, like alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), as well as vitamins B12 and D. While there’s some evidence these nutrients support overall brain health, the report notes, most people can get adequate amounts by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, without the need for supplements taken in pill, capsule, or powder form.
The report also notes that multivitamins aren’t “a substitute for a healthy diet in promoting and maintaining brain health,” but that “supplementation” of vitamins B9 (folic acid) and B12 “may be beneficial for people with lower-than-recommended levels.”
According to Fillit, simple blood tests can reveal levels of vitamins B9, B12, and D, and your doctor can recommend supplements to raise them if needed.
To add, while consumption of fatty fish and other types of seafood may boost cognitive function, there’s “insufficient evidence to recommend taking a fish oil–derived omega-3 supplement for brain health.”
Nutritious Foods More Effective Than Supplements at Keeping Brain Healthy
In general, the GCBH doesn’t “endorse any ingredient, product, or supplement formulation specifically for brain health, unless your healthcare provider has identified that you have a specific nutrient deficiency.” It also advises talking to your doctor before starting on any supplements with the idea of boosting brain health.
The GCBH stresses the need for “more quality studies in humans that focus on cognitive effect” of nutritional supplements, particularly “in those with nutritional deficiencies.” It also suggests that lifestyle habits like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, staying mentally active, and being socially engaged offer more clearly defined benefits.
In fact, among the conclusion of the GCBH report, again based on existing scientific evidence, is that “the best way to get your nutrients for brain health is from a healthy diet … choosing foods known to support a healthy brain.”
Consumers Reluctant to Stop Taking Supplements That Give Hope
Still, concluding from an online discussion forum set up by the AARP to answer questions on the GCBH report findings, many people are refusing to let go of their supplements, which isn’t surprising given that, according to the Nutrition Business Journal report, supplements makes $40 billion in sales in the United States, and $121 billion worldwide, annually. An AARP survey found that among adults 50 years of age and older, 81 percent believe that supplements are at least somewhat important for overall health, and 69 percent are currently taking dietary supplements at least three times a week.
“Unfortunately, people taking these supplements are buying and ingesting hope more than anything else,” Fillit says.