If you’ve ever had concerns about how your memory or sharpness of mind is being affected by age, it can be tempting to reach for one of the many supplements that claim to improve cognitive function and keep your mind alert.
Slipping a supplement into your daily routine is a relatively quick and easy way to feel like you’re being proactive.
But it’s worth knowing that many of these supplements aren’t necessary and can even be a waste of money.
What’s more, there are changes to your diet and lifestyle you can make that are proven to help instead.
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Brain health supplements: the facts
There are some key nutrients our brains need to function properly. These include carbohydrates, iodine, iron, zinc and the omega-3 oil, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
If supplements contain these ingredients they are allowed to carry claims that say they contribute to normal brain and cognitive function.
But you don’t need to get these nutrients from supplements, you can get them from ordinary foods. And if you’re doing this, taking extra in supplement form won’t have any added benefits.
Some popular ‘brain health’ ingredients are unproven
Other common ingredients in supplements labelled for brain and cognitive health include boron, choline, CoQ10 and selenium.
However, the scientific evidence as it stands today doesn’t show these ingredients have any significant impact and therefore none of these nutrients have an authorised health claim for brain or cognitive function.
Many supplements also contain gingko biloba, a herbal ingredient thought to aid brain health, but again the scientific evidence to prove its efficacy is not strong enough to support its use.
Can supplements prevent dementia?
As we age it’s normal that some memories or information take longer for us to recall, this is because our brains and bodies are changing.
Age-related forgetfulness is not the same as dementia or Alzheimer’s, however there’s currently no good research that shows supplements can help to stave off either.
The Global Council on Brain Health, an independent group of scientists, doctors, academics and policy experts from around the world, carried out a review of the current evidence on brain health supplements and concluded there was no evidence to prove their effectiveness.
They advised consumers not to take any dietary supplements for brain health and instead save their money and adopt healthy lifestyle and dietary habits.
The Alzheimer’s Society concurs, saying: ‘Unfortunately, any supplement [or treatment] available to purchase that claims to prevent, slow down or reverse dementia is extremely likely to be bogus.’
So what can you do to keep your brain healthy?
Making small but sustained changes to your diet and lifestyle can have a big impact. It can feel harder to fit these into busy lifestyles, but they don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming and every little helps.
One simple way is to make sure you’re hydrated.
Our brains are made up of around 75% water so being slightly dehydrated can have a negative effect on brain and cognitive function.
Eat healthy fats and aim for a varied, healthy diet to get vital nutrients
The brain also contains fat which is why we need fats in our diet.
These should ideally be healthy fats such as omega-3s and omega-6s. The body can’t make these which is why you need to get it from your diet.
Omega-3 fats include:
- Alpha linoleic acid (ALA) – found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout. One portion of one of these each week will give you all the omega-3s you need.
Omega-6 oils are found in nuts and seeds, soya beans, vegetable oils and eggs.
Other important nutrients for brain health include:
- Zinc – found in meat, shellfish, dairy, bread and grains
- Iodine – found in dairy, fish, eggs and nuts
- Iron – found in red meat, beans and pulses
Lead an active lifestyle, and work to prioritize sleep and minimise stress where possible
Other proven ways to optimise brain health as you age include regular exercise, eating a varied and healthy diet, switching off and having time to relax, and minimising stress and getting enough sleep where possible.
Of course, these aren’t all possible all the time, but it’s worth looking at small changes you can build into healthier habits and sustain over time.
Get more tips in our story on 7 tips for leading a longer and healthier life.