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Nutritional Supplements and 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
Classes on Brain Fitness
Brain Gyms Explained
Physical Fitness and Brain Fitness
Managing Stress

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9 Responses

  1. Yuchun Ku says:

    Thanks for making these information available. My relatives in Taiwan told me that Ginkgo biloba becomes popular in Taiwan because the rumor says that it will help prevent memory loss. It is popular and expensive in Taiwan.

    I can tell my relatives that they can save this money for something else with more proven results.

  2. Caroline says:

    Yuchun,

    I’m glad we provided some useful information for you!

    But, never underestimate the power of the placebo effect. Although the research doesn’t support at real effect with ginkgo, it may work for some people because it provides the expectation that it will work. If you feel more attentive, you will remember more by virtue of paying more attention. But they can also get that effect for much less by going for a walk, getting enough rest, reducing stress, and eating well.

  3. I realize it’s only been 5 months, but do you know if anyone has followed up on Fontani’s request for more research on Omega-3?

  4. Caroline says:

    Captain Pikachu,

    If you’re looking for more reading, I recommend starting with this excellent blog post written by Dr. Simon Evans on omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

    Here are also some links to recent articles on essential fatty acids:
    Omega 3 fatty acids influence mood, impulsivity and personality, study indicates
    Cardiovascular effects of omega-3 free Fatty acid
    Roles of unsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) in the brain at various ages and during ageing

    Happy reading!

  5. Martin says:

    “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.”

    My father did these as well as earn 3 college degrees and he still got sick with Alzheimer’s.

  6. Alvaro says:

    Hello Martin, I am sorry about your father, and the growing incidence of Alzheimer’s in general, given our aging population.

    What Caroline was writing about is general advice that has been shown to reduce the probability of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can fully prevent the disease in individual cases, but lifestyle habits that can reduce the probability.

    Regards

  7. Vintagechic says:

    A little late to answer, I guess. But, I find this study surprising as someone dear to me was in a Gingko study years ago. And he showed a rapid and incredible change in his memory. And went from doddering and incoherent to driving his car again & carrying on conversation, in a few short weeks. I would wonder if the study is trying to sell fish oil. Or, if the study used a poorly made product in it’s testing…or any other number of things. But, I still believe in Gingko.

  8. Alvaro says:

    Vintagechic, let me understand your comment. You are trying to discredit a large and well-controlled study based on the story of one person?

    You are of course free to believe in whatever you choose to and spend your money as you wish. The placebo effect may explain why belief itself is not such a bad thing.

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