At age 78, the fabled actress, Dame Judi Dench has worked with everyone from Gwenyth Paltrow to Pierce Brosnan, and won practically every available acting award.
But, that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the effects of aging.
In a recent interview with Jon Snow, a reporter with the Britain-based, Channel 4 News, Dench admitted turning to memory supplements to help her keep track of the things her characters are supposed to say and do.
“It is more difficult to remember, to retain some things,” Dench said to Snow. “I take that wonderful thing called IQ [a brand name supplement] every morning—long may it last.”
Of course, Dench is no stranger to dealing with age-related obstacles to her acting.
She has to have special, large-print scripts made to accommodate problems with her eyesight, caused by macular degeneration—a disease which gradually diminishes the sharpness and clarity of a person’s central vision.
But, unlike bold-faced type, which is demonstrably easier for aging eyes to read, the effectiveness of memory supplements isn’t so easily determined.
Memory supplements: what’s in them?
Most products that purport to be memory-enhancing come in either pill or powder form.
David Perlmutter, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and author of, “Power Up Your Brain,” describes the three basic functions of memory supplements, and their common ingredients:
Increase overall brain energy: This is one of the most popular categories of memory supplement among consumers. Typical ingredients include:
- Coenzyme Q10—an enzyme found in every cell in the human body that is essential for cell repair and growth.
- N-acetylcysteine—an antioxidant thought to reduce cholesterol and increase immune system functioning.
- Carnitine—a chemical that enables the body to transform fat into usable energy.
- Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NADH)—a substance important for energy production and dopamine creation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that contributes to a variety of mental functions, including: cognition, learning, voluntary movement, sleep cycles and mood.
Enhance brain cell functioning: These supplements aid memory by providing nutrients that brain cells need to operate smoothly. They boast the inclusion of vital cell membrane building blocks, including:
- Omega-3 fatty acids—thought to reduce inflammation, lower heart disease risk, decrease joint pain and stiffness in people with arthritis and possibly fend off cognitive impairment caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
- Choline—a substance that performs similar functions to B vitamins, including reducing inflammation and aiding in nervous system functioning.
- Phosphatidylserine—a chemical found in cell membranes throughout the human body. The cell membrane is vital for the proper functioning of cells because it helps process nutrients.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—an especially-potent type of omega-3, that is important for the proper development of nerve tissues.
Promote new brain cell growth: The ability to create new brain cells—also known as neurogenesis—is an area of great interest for brain researchers, according to Perlmutter. DHA and lithium, two elements thought to play a prominent role in fostering new brain cell growth, are commonly found in these kinds of supplements.
Continue reading to find out whether memory supplements really work…
Do memory-enhancers really work?
The one question on the tip of the tongue of anyone considering taking a mind-amplifying supplement is, predictably, also the one that is most difficult to answer.
Numerous studies have hinted at the potential brain-boosting benefits of each of the aforementioned ingredients. However, inconsistent research methods and conflicting results have merely served to confuse scientists and laymen alike.
Only a select few memory supplement ingredients appear to have a legitimately positive effect on people with age-related cognitive decline, according to Perlmutter. “Despite various media claims, very few of these components, with the exception of phosphatidylsterine and DHA, have a dramatic effect on memory,” he says.
He cites a 2010 investigation, called the MIDAS study, which indicated that a 900mg daily dose of DHA, given to healthy older adults (age 55 and older) could have a positive impact on memory function.
But what about people in their 80s and 90s, who are suffering from chronic diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s?
Researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University recently attempted to determine whether or not the promising effects of DHA in spry aging adults, could also benefit people in the mild or moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Unfortunately, DHA had no apparent effect on the seniors in the study, leading study authors to conclude, “There is no basis for recommending DHA supplementation for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.” They did, however, admit that further research was necessary to explore whether or not people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s could derive some benefit from DHA.
Could you benefit form a memory-boosting supplement?
Cognitively healthy adults may derive some benefit from memory-enhancing supplements, as Dench claims she does, but there’s no one-size-fits all approach to brain preservation.
No one should start taking a supplement of any kind without first talking to their doctor.
Perlmutter does recommend supplements to some of his patients. But, his suggestions always accompany a holistic approach to mental and physical health. “The cornerstone of our program focuses on a low-carbohydrate, high ‘good’ fat diet along with regular aerobic exercise,” he says.
Supplements can contribute to polypharmacy and cause dangerous drug interactions when mixed with prescription medications. They may also have a negative effect on individuals with certain health conditions.
Even after a physician gives the green light for you to try a new supplement, keep in mind that none of these products are regulated by the FDA. This means that it’s nearly impossible to determine how strong or safe a given product really is. This includes memory-boosters that are labeled as “all-natural,” such as Gingko biloba, ginseng and Chinese club moss.
Always exercise caution when adding a new supplement. And remember, if you have reservations, it’s always a good idea to seek a second opinion.
By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor