Can a supplement really improve your brain health? 

So many over-the-counter products claim to keep your brain sharp as you age. Are they magic pills or a waste of money? We look into the latest research.

Older adult couple taking supplements in the kitchen

The supplement aisle at your local drugstore is packed with products promising to sharpen your focus and boost your memory. And no doubt, the idea of simply popping a pill to improve cognition is tempting. No wonder an estimated 1 in 5 adults over the age of 50 have purchased a brain health supplement. 

But here’s the real question: Do they work? They are certainly popular — Americans spend roughly $50 billion on them every year. 

But it’s a good idea to be skeptical of vitamins and supplements in general. An important thing to know is that dietary supplements are largely unregulated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has all kinds of rules and requirements for pharmaceutical drugs. But they don’t hold supplements to the same strict standards. All the FDA can really do is recall a supplement after it has caused problems. 

That means a supplement sitting on a store shelf could have a contaminant such as lead in it. Or it might contain different ingredients than what’s listed on the box. It’s up to shoppers to try to figure out if the product is safe or not. (One way to do so: Check if it’s been tested and certified by a third party such as USP.) 

Even if a supplement is safe, that doesn’t mean it’s effective. Take the popular brain health supplement Prevagen, for example. The packaging boasts it’s been “clinically shown” to work. But a study published in 2022 discovered that those claims are based on just one trial. And that one trial had “significant limitations.” 

We’re not trying to single out Prevagen here, by the way. A 2019 report on brain health supplements concluded that “scientific evidence does not support the use of any supplement to prevent, slow, reverse, or stop MCI [mild cognitive impairment] or dementia.” This report was conducted by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent group of researchers and other experts. 

For the most part, there just haven’t been enough high-quality studies done. In the future, we may discover that certain supplements do, in fact, benefit brain health. So far, here’s what the research has turned up. 

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Multivitamins and brain health 

There’s always been debate about whether people should be taking a multivitamin. You’ll hear many nutritionists say that a multivitamin usually isn’t necessary if you eat a balanced diet.  

But not all experts agree. “In my opinion, that’s a privileged stance,” says Laura D. Baker, Ph.D. She’s a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University, who has authored dozens of studies looking at how lifestyle behaviors can slow cognitive decline as we age. 

In reality, many Americans struggle to find and afford nutritious food. And older adults face unique challenges that can contribute to nutrient deficiencies. “Often, they’re not cooking as much. Or they’re on a medication that can affect how the body absorbs nutrients,” Baker says. 

Now, it turns out that a humble multivitamin could prove to be an important tool in the fight against cognitive decline. In one important new study, researchers followed more than 2,000 older adults for three years. They were randomly assigned into groups taking a placebo, multivitamin, cocoa extract, or a combo of vitamins and cocoa extract. The people who took a daily multivitamin showed improvements in cognition and memory equivalent to slowing cognitive aging by about 1.8 years over the three-year period — and the people taking the cocoa extract or the placebo did not. 

Baker was a co-author of the study. “A multivitamin isn’t a silver bullet — it’s not going to prevent Alzheimer’s,” she says. “But it’s possible it could offer another layer of protection.” 

She believes more research is needed before she would start recommending that everyone take a multivitamin for brain health. Still, she’s excited that something so affordable and accessible could end up being helpful. 

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Other supplements and brain health 

Beyond multivitamins, there are certain nutrients touted to help with memory and cognition. Popular supplements for brain health include: 

  • Caffeine 
  • Coenzyme Q10 
  • Ginkgo biloba 
  • Ginseng 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids 
  • Turmeric/curcumin  
  • Vitamin D 

Some have been studied more than others. But there’s no proof that any of them are a slam dunk for preventing memory loss. Let’s look at three supplements as examples. 

1. Ginkgo biloba. Ginkgo biloba comes from a tree native to China, and its extract contains lots of antioxidants, which are substances that may help prevent cell damage in the body. One older, small study looked at older adults with mild age-related memory impairment. Those who took ginkgo biloba performed better on cognitive tests. 

But a much larger trial didn’t find the same. Over the course of eight years, researchers examined more than 3,000 older adults — half took ginkgo biloba and half got a placebo. The study included people who had normal cognition and those with mild cognitive issues. In the end, taking ginkgo biloba didn’t have an effect on cognitive decline compared to the placebo in either group. 

Studies have also focused on people with more advanced cognitive impairment. Similarly, the research is unclear. Some studies suggest that ginkgo biloba could help benefit brain function in people with dementia. And that it might slow the progression of memory loss. But overall, the studies have flaws that call into question the findings — and a gold-standard study is needed to be sure. 

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2. Vitamin D. Your body doesn’t need ginkgo biloba to survive. But it does require vitamin D to function properly. And some studies have found a link between low levels of vitamin D and memory problems. 

Does that mean that taking more vitamin D could boost cognition? A few small studies have suggested that vitamin D supplements might improve some brain function. But again, the evidence just isn’t there to say vitamin D pills can protect against dementia. A recent large study showed no difference in cognitive function in people taking vitamin D for two years compared to a placebo control group. This is why GCBH, the independent research group, doesn’t recommend taking vitamin D to improve memory. 

Still, vitamin D is an essential nutrient. And approximately 35% of adults in the United States don’t get enough of it. A simple blood test can confirm whether you’re one of them. If so, your doctor may recommend a vitamin D supplement. 

3. Omega-3 fatty acids. Many claim that these buzzy nutrients are essential fats for brain health. But your body doesn’t make them on its own. Omega-3s are plentiful in fatty fish (like salmon), as well as flax and chia seeds. Because many people don’t get enough in their diet, doctors sometimes recommend taking a supplement. 
There has been contradictory research on the benefits. But a few recent reviews — which looked at data from multiple studies — do suggest increasing omega-3 may be worth it for brain health. A 2023 study review published in the American Journal of Nutrition found that omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of dementia or cognitive decline by around 20%, particularly with DHA, a specific type of omega-3. The researchers suggested either diet or long-term supplementation. 
According to another review in Cureus, omega-3s improved memory, cognitive well-being, and blood flow in the brain. These researchers, however, did encourage dietary intake of omega-3s versus supplements, if possible. They noted that fish have the highest concentrations of DHA and another important omega-3 fat, EPA. 

The bottom line: There is hope that certain supplements might help keep your brain sharp as you age. But right now, we need more research to prove it.  

Of course, if you’re curious about trying a supplement, your doctor can help you weigh the pros and cons. They can also talk to you about the many other things you can do to boost brain health. That includes prioritizing sleep, eating colorful foods, moving your body, and spending time with friends and family. As you keep your brain active, you’ll also be strengthening your overall health. 

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Additional sources: 
Survey on supplement use in older adults: AARP 
U.S. supplement market: Grand View Research 
Study on Prevagen’s claims: The Senior Care Pharmacist 
Global Council on Brain Health report: The Real Deal on Brain Health Supplements  
Large multivitamin study: Alzheimer’s & Dementia 
Small ginkgo studies showing benefits: Clinical Therapeutics 
Larger trial on ginkgo: JAMA 
Review of research on ginkgo and dementia: Journal of Ethnopharmacology 
Large trial on vitamin D: Nature Scientific Reports 
Vitamin D deficiency: Cleveland Clinic 
Study review on omega-3s and dementia: American Journal of Nutrition 
Study review on omega-3s and memory: Cureus