As people become more aware of cognitive decline and the risks of dementia, manufacturers are marketing an ever-expanding line of products that claim to improve memory and brain health. However, memory pills can be ineffective, unsafe, or of poor quality.
Some people take so-called “memory pills” to strengthen their brain health or to prevent dementia.
However, research has yet to prove the effectiveness of these memory pills, and they can be unsafe for some people, especially if they already have dementia or are taking certain medications.
Additionally, the government does not rate dietary supplements, making it difficult for people to choose quality products.
This article explains what memory pills are and how they work. It also looks at their safety and effectiveness, as well as the risks of taking supplements.
Read on to find out what research is saying about memory pills and other popular brain health products, and how diet and lifestyle can help you maintain brain health.
“Memory pills” is a term someone can use to describe products and supplements that help memory.
Manufacturers sell various products in stores and online that claim to improve memory and cognitive performance. Sometimes people refer to these products as “smart drugs” or “nootropics”.
How do you work?
Nootropics affect the brain by affecting neurons and neurotransmitters at the cellular level.
Some research suggests that these processes may positively affect the amyloid plaques that scientists believe are responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
Nootropics can be either prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, or nutritional supplements.
Doctors can prescribe nootropics like donepezil for Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition, some people take supplements that claim to have nootropic or memory-enhancing effects. However, scientific research may not have proven these effects.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates the safety and effectiveness of drugs that doctors prescribe for memory problems.
However, unlike prescription drugs, the FDA does not evaluate dietary supplements. As a result, it is difficult for consumers to know whether a dietary supplement will work, whether it is of sufficient quality, and whether it is safe to take.
The FDA prohibits manufacturers from claiming that such products prevent, treat, or cure any disease or health condition.
In 2018, the FDA issued warning letters to companies illegally selling more than 58 products and dietary supplements claiming to prevent, treat, or cure Alzheimer’s disease and several other serious diseases and health conditions. The FDA noted that these products could be ineffective, unsafe, and could prevent a person from seeking appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
A 2020 study identified 650 nutritional supplements manufacturers marketed for brain health and cognitive performance. Of the 12 products the researchers selected, the majority contained either additional ingredients that the manufacturer didn’t list or listed ingredients that the researchers couldn’t identify through analysis. In addition, the evidence did not support some of the claims made by the products regarding efficacy and safety.
The Food Supplements Office notes that several independent organizations offer quality testing and allow seals to appear on products that meet the standards. These organizations include US Pharmacopeia and ConsumerLab.com. People can look for these seals to help them choose a product, but be aware that they are not government approval.
Below is a list of nutritional supplements that researchers have looked at to aid memory and brain function, and what the evidence says:
Traditional cultures and practitioners have used ginkgo biloba leaves in herbal medicine for centuries.
The active ingredients in ginkgo biloba that can improve blood circulation are antioxidant and neuroprotective.
Manufacturers sell dietary supplements that contain an extract from ginkgo biloba called EGb 761. Some researchers have studied the effectiveness of this extract on dementia.
A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis, as well as a 2019 review, concluded that while there appear to be positive effects on the extract in dementia, the limitations in the studies mean scientists are unable to make firm conclusions about its clinical efficacy can draw, especially in different cases types of dementia.
Flavonoids, cocoa and caffeine
A 2019 report by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) assessed dietary supplements for brain health. The report concluded that there is currently insufficient evidence to recommend consuming cocoa, flavanols, or resveratrol for brain health.
The authors comment that some studies have found that these compounds can improve brain blood flow, alertness, and processing speed, but several studies are industry funded, which could lead to bias.
Additionally, the GCBH points out that while caffeine may provide some short-term benefits in terms of mental alertness and focus, caffeine supplements in the form of energy drinks and pills can pose health risks.
Vitamins and minerals
Some people believe that taking vitamin and mineral supplements such as B vitamins, vitamin E, and antioxidants can support brain health and function.
However, the research is currently contradicting and inconclusive.
In a Cochrane review from 2018, for example, the cognitive effects of taking vitamin and mineral supplements for at least three months on people aged 40 and over were examined. The researchers concluded that the supplement had little effect on healthy adults, but said the evidence does not allow any definitive conclusions. Still, the authors found that antioxidant vitamins could have beneficial effects and deserve further research.
In addition, the Lancet Commission’s 2020 report did not recommend taking additional vitamins, oils, or mixed dietary supplements as a means of preventing dementia, as extensive studies have shown no beneficial effects. However, the authors point out that evidence suggests that following a Mediterranean or Scandinavian diet may help prevent cognitive decline.
The GCBH report notes that as they age, some people may become deficient in vitamins due to absorption and dental issues, which can affect their brain health. In addition, people on a restricted diet, such as vegans, can experience vitamin B12 deficiency, which affects memory and the ability to think. Therefore, groups of people who are at risk of nutrient deficiency can benefit from taking a dietary supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The GCBH report concluded that overall there is not enough evidence to recommend taking omega-3 supplements made from fish oil for brain health. The authors found that eating oily fish may benefit cognitive function due to its docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) content, but this is inconclusive.
There are some risks associated with taking memory supplements, especially if the person is on prescription drugs or has cognitive impairment or dementia.
For example, a 2017 study of people with dementia who attended a Norwegian outpatient memory clinic found that they used dietary supplements frequently. However, the researchers did not monitor the participants’ use of supplements that may have interacted with other drugs they were taking.
People taking medications such as blood thinners, heart medications, and drugs that affect the immune system should avoid taking supplements without telling their doctor.
Some herbal supplements like ginkgo biloba, garlic, and ginseng can increase the risk for someone undergoing surgery. In addition, some dietary supplements can make chemotherapy less effective in cancer patients. People should always make their doctor aware of any supplements they are taking.
Additionally, the fact that the FDA has not validated dietary supplements for safety and quality is an additional potential risk.
People can support their memory and brain health by taking steps to ensure they have a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Some key messages from the Lancet Commission’s 2020 report and the GCBH report are:
- Eat a healthy diet to provide all of the essential nutrients
- Identify vitamin or mineral deficiencies and talk to a doctor about taking a dietary supplement
- The goal is to maintain systolic blood pressure of 130 mm Hg or less in mid-life from about 40 years of age
- Avoid obesity and the risk of diabetes, and maintain an active lifestyle, especially from mid-life
- Limit alcohol consumption and quit smoking as this can reduce the risk of dementia
- Reduce exposure to air pollution and second-hand tobacco smoke
Experts have linked many risk factors for dementia to social determinants of health and the inequalities faced by colored communities and other marginalized groups. Creating environments where physical activity is the norm, reducing blood pressure, which increases with age through better diet, and reducing possible excessive noise exposure can all help combat these risk factors.
Consuming caffeine for short-term concentration can be helpful for some people, but long-term use of memory supplements can have risks.
The fact that the FDA does not rate dietary supplements means that some products may be ineffective, of poor quality, or not containing the ingredients listed on the packaging.
For people with dementia, taking supplements without supervision can pose a risk, especially if they are also taking prescribed medications. People who have a medical condition, are going to have surgery, or are taking prescribed medication should always consult their doctor before taking any supplements.
Although some research shows the beneficial effects of supplements such as ginkgo biloba or omega-3 fatty acids, the evidence is still inconclusive.
To support brain health and memory, people should maintain a healthy lifestyle and diet, and avoid nutritional deficiencies. If a doctor diagnoses a vitamin deficiency, they may advise someone to take a dietary supplement to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.