Do Over-the-counter Memory Aids Help?

April 12, 2022

The ads for over-the-counter memory aids are a staple of TV commercials. They claim to promote greater clarity, more brainpower, and better memory recall. Whatever the product might be, the fear of memory loss in later years is a very real thing. According to a survey conducted by the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) on brain health and dietary supplements, Americans between the ages of 50 and 75 will spend an estimated $5.8 billion annually on memory aids to try and stave off memory loss.

Are over-the-counter memory aids considered medications?
Pharmacist Shannon Burke, PharmD, Pharmacy Clinical Coordinator and Residency Director at Shore Medical Center said, "Consumers should understand, over-the-counter memory aids are not medications, they are supplements."

According to Dr. Burke, "The goal of a medication is to provide a cure or to maintain and improve the current condition of the body. Supplements are not considered medicines. They do not give a cure to any illness or disease. They can enhance or improve one’s dietary intake to reinforce the nutrient supply to the body. Supplements might prevent a disease or health-related condition."

Be a label reader        
Medications must meet strict requirements and be approved by the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) before becoming available to consumers. According to Dr. Burke, supplements do not necessarily pass the FDA evaluation before they become available for public consumption. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act mandates that manufacturers of dietary supplements must evaluate the safety and labeling of their products before marketing them, and the FDA must take action against manufacturers of adulterated or misbranded products after they reach the market.

Read the label to be certain what is in the supplement you are taking. Products sold as dietary supplements come with a supplemental facts label that lists the active ingredients, the amount per serving or dose, and other ingredients such as fillers, binders, and flavorings, said Dr. Burke.

"Remember to always consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking any dietary supplement in combination with medications. Some supplements can interact with certain medications that might cause problems," added Dr. Burke.

Herbal supplements
Curcumin, turmeric, and ginkgo biloba are popular herbal supplements that claim to improve memory, but is there science behind the claims? Dr. Burke said we don't know exactly how turmeric, which contains curcumin, works to improve memory. Both of these supplements have been shown to improve memory in people with mild, age-related memory loss in several studies. In contrast, ginkgo biloba has not been shown to slow or prevent age-related memory problems or memory loss associated with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease.

People may take the supplements for memory improvement, and while they may not do anything to improve memory, Dr. Burke said, if taken as recommended on the product label, they will likely not be harmful. "You are, however, more likely to have side effects from dietary supplements if you take them at high doses or if you take many different supplements."

Diet plays a role in cognitive function
There is strong evidence that certain diets can improve cognitive function. According to Dr. Burke, the Mediterranean diet, the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet and the MIND (Mediterranean DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet are recommended. "The brain-healthy foods included in these diets are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, berries, fish, poultry, and olive oil," said Dr. Burke. "Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil help improve the health of blood vessels. Protecting the blood vessels by following a heart-healthy diet protects the mind as well. When you eat a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat, you reduce the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, all of which are believed to contribute to memory loss."

Why would a pharmacist recommend a brain supplement?         
Dr. Burke said, "A pharmacist may recommend a brain supplement to someone at risk of developing age-related memory problems or memory loss associated with cognitive impairment, either due to comorbidities or a family history."

"There is no memory supplement I would recommend over another," said Dr. Burke. "There are multiple factors to consider to make a patient-specific recommendation. I would encourage several other interventions for everyone to protect memory as they age, including; controlling cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure, quitting smoking, and exercising three or more times each week. As always, discuss your plans and possible interactions with your pharmacist or doctor before taking any supplements."