Dear Dietician: Thinking about ways to maintain brain health
One of my favorite pastimes is watching the game show “Jeopardy!” I will never be a contestant on the show, but it boosts my ego when I answer five or more questions correctly.
As a middle-aged Gen Xer, life has brought about education, so I have increased my competence in the game. However, there are many times I know the answer, but I cannot think of it in time. You might have experienced the same. It’s likely to happen to all of us at one time or another. It may get worse and likely won’t get better. Sadly, it’s part of the aging process, a memory that just isn’t as sharp as it once was.
We can exercise, eat healthy and have an annual physical, but is this enough to keep our minds sharp? Nowadays, there are many supplements on the market to help with memory. They’re called nootropics, a term from the ancient Greek “noos,” meaning mind, and “tropein,” meaning to turn. Nootropics are substances that specifically affect the mind.
One such nootropic is apoaequorin, which is made from a protein found in jellyfish. In a small study of 218 adults aged 40-91 years, apoaequorin was found to improve cognitive function in elderly adults (1). However, the study was criticized for not using standardized methods of testing. The study also was sponsored by a company that produces the supplement, which often leans toward bias in favor of the product.
The Federal Trade Commission charged a manufacturer of apoaequorin with false advertising. The lawsuit claims the maker misled the public and made claims, such as “clinically proven” to improve cognitive function, without the science to back such claims.
Another memory supplement is phosphatidylserine. In small studies, this nootropic was shown to improve memory in elderly participants compared to a placebo. However, improvements lasted only a few months and were seen in people with the slightest symptoms (2).
It was my hope to bring some good news to this week’s column. It’s easy to see how people get confused about dietary supplements. Marketing says one thing; science says another. How is one to know what to believe?
One positive note is that the FDA has taken a stronger position on supplements. Until now, the FDA did not intervene unless a dietary supplement was harmful. As of 2019, the FDA’s oversight of the supplement industry includes the following:
- Notifying the public promptly if a dietary supplement is illegal or dangerous and should not be consumed
- Ensuring flexible regulations to evaluate safety while encouraging the development of new products
- Creating a panel of leading scientific experts to improve safety evaluations of dietary supplements
- Taking strong actions against makers of illegal products, manufacturers who make false claims, and companies whose products contain impurities or ingredients not listed on the label (3)
The FDA’s new stand on the oversight of the dietary supplement industry is good for consumers. Anything to protect consumers' safety and well-being is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, if it sounds too good to be true, turn around and spend your money on something more likely to do good, like a gym membership.
Until next time, be healthy!
Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, is an award-winning dietitian based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at email@example.com. Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or diet plans.
- Moran DL, Underwood MY, Gabourie TA, Lerner KC. Effects of a supplement containing apoaequorin on verbal learning in older adults in the community. Adv Mind Body Med. 2016 Winter;30(1):4-11. PMID: 26878676.
- Graff-Redford, J. (2019, April 20) Can phosphatidylserine improve memory and cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease? https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/phosphatidylserine/faq-20057764
- Shmerling, R. (2020, Sept 29) FDA curbs unfounded memory supplement claims. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fda-curbs-unfounded-memory-supplement-claims-2019053116772