Memory-Enhancing Supplements: What's the Evidence?

Study reports on the availability of safety and efficacy data for over-the-counter supplements for improving brain health.
Study reports on the availability of safety and efficacy data for over-the-counter supplements for improving brain health.

Introduction

The public is frequently bombarded with advertisements on radio, television, the Internet, and in print about the “latest and greatest” in supplements. These ads tout claims for the improvement of many ailments, as well as treatment for weight loss and memory enhancement. Supplements can be obtained without a prescription and are available at grocery, pharmacy, health food, and other stores, as well as online.

In the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tightly regulates pharmaceuticals. However, the agency does not regulate supplements as stringently. According to the FDA's website, the producers of dietary supplements do not need FDA approval prior to selling their products. The manufacturers must follow Dietary Supplement Current Good Manufacturing Practices, and they must submit any “serious adverse event reports” to the FDA. 

The FDA does regulate labeling, as the Federal Trade Commission regulates advertising for supplements.1 However, consumers are not provided guarantees concerning the efficacy, safety, or integrity of ingredients used by manufacturers. 

A study was therefore conducted to investigate the availability of information regarding safety and efficacy of ingredients found in 31 different over-the-counter supplements (available for purchase in the United States) that claim to enhance memory and/or brain health, or to keep the mind sharp.

Methods

This study collected information about supplements that are available on the Internet and at retail stores.  Thirty-one supplements were studied, with 92 or more ingredients identified. Only the most common ingredients (14 of 92, each of which was found in more than one-quarter of the supplements) were further researched for efficacy and safety. 

Data regarding the efficacy of the 14 ingredients were found primarily via a PubMed search, which was mostly limited to randomized, placebo-controlled trials; systematic reviews; and meta-analyses. Search criteria primarily included memory and/or cognition, and adults with cognitive impairment. Additionally, a few articles and other websites were found apart from the PubMed search. Drug interactions were gathered from a variety of sources,2-4 but most information was found at drugs.com, a website easily accessible to the public.

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