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Dietary supplements and brain health

Picture of vitamin pills

Published on 05 July 2019 11:52 AM

The link between taking dietary supplements and improvements in brain health has been quashed

‘The best way to get nutrients for brain health is from a healthy diet’ – say experts

A new report released by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) concludes that there’s ‘no convincing evidence’ that nutritional supplements specifically designed for brain health actually benefit thinking skills, memory, or improve symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Experts, scientists and health professionals from around the world, brought together by the GCBH, reviewed scientific evidence on the effects that taking various nutritional supplements has on brain health. The review was primarily carried out on people aged 50 and over. Experts concluded that, despite some supplements claiming they could improve thinking skills, there was no clear evidence to back those claims.  

Instead, the experts recommended getting nutrients from a healthy diet. For example, a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables is associated with better brain health. The experts also resolved that they could not endorse any ingredient, product or supplement formulation designed to boost brain health.

In the UK in 2016 there was an increase in the market value of food supplements overall to £906 million. That forecast is expected to reach £1billion by 2021. This report shows however, that taking supplements specifically to improve brain health could be a waste of money unless a person has been diagnosed with a vitamin deficiency or health issue.Such deficiencies in older people generally occur during the natural ageing process when many of us can no longer absorb nutrients from food via our digestive system as efficiently as we did when we were younger. Taking multiple medications can also increase the risk of developing vitamin deficiencies.
Age UK
, a founding collaborator in the GCBH created by AARP, echoes the view that, for staying sharp, taking vitamin supplements is no substitute for eating a healthy diet, exercising, challenging your thinking skills, sleeping well, or connecting with others socially. At the launch of the report in the USA, Sarah Lenz Lock, Executive Director of the GCBH, suggested ‘…rather than buying a dietary supplement, spend money on new walking shoes or a salmon dinner.’

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director said: “These eminent experts have concluded it doesn’t do any good to take supplements to promote your brain health in later life so our advice to older people is to save your money and spend it on a healthy diet, full of delicious fruit and vegetables instead.”

The GCBH report highlights some additional practical tips for individuals before taking any nutritional supplements, including:

  • Discuss with your health provider any vitamins and supplements you are taking, and their possible risks, benefits and interactions. Your health provider may recommend a supplement if you are nutrient-deficient or are at risk of becoming so due to diet, lifestyle or other health issues.
  • Before taking a supplement, ask yourself whether you are already getting enough nutrients through your diet or a multivitamin. Are claims made about the supplement’s benefits supported by high quality research?
  • Remember that more is not always better—some vitamins, minerals and other ingredients in supplements can be toxic at high levels.
  • If a nutritional supplement’s claims sound too good to be true, it probably is. Particularly beware if a supplement claims to improve brain health or memory, make you smarter, or cure a disease.

Before taking any nutritional supplements designed specifically to improve memory or thinking skills, its good advice to discuss it with your health provider. There may be cautions and warnings relating to specific health conditions on the label and it is possible that some nutritional supplements when taken in large doses may interact with medications already being taken - so it is better to check in the first instance.

The full report from the GCBH ‘The real deal on Brain Health Supplements’ is available at:

https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/supplements.html

To learn more about the actions Age UK recommends to help maintain and improve brain health, visit:  https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/mind-body/staying-sharp/ or AARP’s website:  https://stayingsharp.aarp.org/

Download Age UK National's “Healthy Living” free guide, which includes information on healthy eating from this link:

https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/information-guides/ageukig24_healthy_living_inf.pdf

Public Health England also sets out a healthy eating guide here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/742746/A_quick_guide_to_govt_healthy_eating_update.pdf

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