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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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