Results are mixed so far, but studies continue on pills’ effect on brain
As believers in so-called "magic bullets," we love the idea of popping a pill – especially if it is a natural product – to get the results we want. The problem with pills, however, is that the extracted form of a nutrient rarely matches up with the complex whole form found in food.
So, when researchers examined the benefits of fish oil supplements or berry and spinach extracts, the results were mixed. This is partly a function of the challenges of designing good studies and replicating them several times in different populations, but it's also likely because food is, nutritionally speaking, greater than the sum of its parts. Given that caveat, you may be wondering how some of the other popular supplements stacked up when it comes to preserving the functions of an aging brain.
Once thought to play an important role in preventing cognitive decline, B-vitamins simply haven't panned out, according to recent research. In one well-controlled study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, researchers who gave 400 men with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease a mix of vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid did not see an effect on any cognitive measures after 18 months.
There have only been a couple of studies on the sunshine vitamin's role in the aging brain, and so far, it appears that there is a relationship between low levels of vitamin D in the bloodstream and an increased risk for cognitive decline. These early studies, however, can't yet point to vitamin D being the cause of the change in brain function, only that there is an association. No studies on vitamin D supplements have been published yet, but stay tuned.
Long touted as a supplement for memory and concentration, dozens of studies on gingko's effect on the brain have been conducted over the years with inconsistent results. Since most of the early trials had design flaws, only the most recent handful of trials are considered valid. Of four trials, three showed no effect, and one showed a very large benefit from gingko supplementation.
In conclusion, supplements are not necessarily the way to go for brain health. The best way to stay sharp in later years is to follow a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables and adequate protein.
Columnist Jennifer Sygo is Director of Nutrition for Cleveland Clinic Canada, which offers executive physicals, prevention and wellness counseling and personal healthcare management in Toronto. This story was excerpted from a column that originally appeared in The National Post on June 8, 2009.
To make a gift supporting Cleveland Clinic, visit iSupport, our secure online giving site, or call Institutional Relations and Development at 216.444.1245 or toll-free at 800.223.2273, ext. 41245.