Dietary supplements for mind and memory: What works, what doesn't, from the December 2012 Harvard Men's Health Watch

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Many vitamins and dietary supplements are touted to improve mental functioning and memory, but trustworthy scientific evidence is lacking. Exercise and a heart healthy diet are the best ways to preserve memory.

Can taking a pill improve memory or boost brain function? Probably not, reports the December 2012 Harvard Men's Health Watch.

A long list of supplements allegedly "support" or "help" the brain. These include three B vitamins (folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12) and antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and coenzyme Q10. But wait, there's more: the herbal supplements huperzine A and ginkgo biloba, along with nutraceuticals like fish oil (containing omega-3 fatty acids), curcumin, and coconut oil. Cross off most of these products for lack of solid scientific evidence.

"There are a lot of things out there for which we have no data on whether they are safe or do anything to help," says Dr. Gad Marshall, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Want to do something proven to help maintain mind and memory? "My strongest recommendations are a Mediterranean-style diet and regular physical exercise," Dr. Marshall says.

Would-be supplement shoppers also need to be aware of safety issues that have been raised about some so-called brain boosters.

  •     Vitamin E at doses higher than 400 international units (IU) per day is risky for people with active cardiovascular disease or risk factors for it.
  •     Taking 400 IU or more of vitamin E per day has been linked to an increase in prostate cancer.
  •     Vitamin E, ginkgo biloba, and fish oil supplements slightly inhibit blood clotting. Combining one or more of these with an anticoagulant drug such as warfarin (Coumadin) could cause extra bruising or bleeding.

Because of a legal loophole, dietary supplements do not have to pass the rigorous FDA process to ensure they are safe and effective. That means many of these products are on the shelves claiming to "support" or "help" memory because of a gap in the law—not because we have strong evidence that those claims are true.

Read the full-length article: "Mind and memory supplement scorecard"

Also in the December 2012 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch:

  •     When is it safe to delay hernia surgery?
  •     Best moves for backed-up bowels
  •     Your PSA test result: What it really means
  •     Can headache medications cause more headaches?

The Harvard Men's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

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Natalie Ramm
Harvard Health Publications
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