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Brain Food: The Value of Nutritional Supplements for Brain Fitness

Well, the idea that you can just pop a pill to improve your memory and attention lost some ground today.

The Associated Press released an article on DHEA, a steroid precursor to testosterone and estrogen used to improve athletic performance, increase sex drive, and reduce fat as well as fight diabetes and heart disease. The conclusion of a two-year study at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and University of Padua in Italy was that it did not improve strength, physical performance, or other measures of health. The positive news was:

No harmful side effects were detected. That is good news, but it does not mean the supplements are altogether safe, said Simon Yeung, manager of the Web site on supplements and integrative medicine at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Glad to hear it’s not harmful, but not an overwhelming endorsement either! Furthermore, some prior research suggests “DHEA carries risks and may cause side effects.” I wouldn’t run to the store just yet to get DHEA supplements.

Ginkgo biloba is another over-the-counter memory-enhancing supplement we have heard a lot about recently. Paul Solomon from Williams College found “these data suggest that when taken following the manufacturer’s instructions, ginkgo provides no measurable benefit in memory or related cognitive function to adults with healthy cognitive function.” Nicholas Burns from the University of Adelaide, Australia just published his results from a double-blind, placebo-controlled study assessing the effects of ginkgo on a wide range of measures of cognitive abilities, executive function, attention and mood in healthy 55-79 year olds as well as 18-43 year olds. He found longer-term memory improved in the older population, but no improvement on any other measure for either the younger or older participants. On a positive note, the reported side effects were mild. Sarah Elsabagh from King’s College London found ginkgo improved attention and memory in the short term. However, there were no benefits after 6 weeks, suggesting that a tolerance develops quickly. Again, not an overwhelming endorsement.

And what about the omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, and tuna? They fare better with Giuliano Fontani’s work at the University of Siena in Italy. He associated omega-3 supplementation with an improvement of attentional and physiological functions, particularly those involving complex cortical processing. He concludes his study by saying:

This was shown by the improvement of reactivity, attention and cognitive performances in addition to the improvement of mood state and the modifications of some neuro-electrical parameters. These results have been obtained from a small study group and need further confirmation in a wider group of subjects and in particular for the possible influences of age and gender.

While the news looks promising for omega-3 fatty acids, there are still many outstanding questions and more research needs to be done.

What can you do right now? Eat a balanced diet, get plenty of physical exercise, stay cognitively active, and reduce your stress. And as always, talk with your doctor about any concerns. Combine these things, and you should stay healthy and active well into your later years.

Further Links
Fish Food for Thought
Classes on Brain Fitness
Brain Gyms Explained
Physical Fitness and Brain Fitness
Managing Stress

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