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Do memory boosters really work?

April 12, 2016 | UCI Health
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A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is so devastating that patients and families seek any available remedies in addition to prescribed medication that might stave off — or even reduce — the accompanying dementia.

Rumors abound, many of them based on substances or practices that at first seemed promising. Ginkgo biloba. Fish oil. Ibuprofen. Shrimp or caviar.

Unfortunately, rigorous follow-up studies have found that most of these simply don’t work, says Dr. Chuang-Kuo Wu, a UCI Health neurologist and professor of neurology who specializes in treatment and research of dementia.

Fish oil, ginkgo biloba and more

Take the belief among some that eggs, shrimp or other foods that are good sources of choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, might help. That belief made a certain amount of sense because levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, are low in people with Alzheimer’s.

The problem, Wu says, is that the choline breaks down quickly in the gut; it never makes it to the brain.

Omega 3 fatty acids — which many people took in the form of fish-oil capsules — looked promising in early epidemiological studies, Wu says, but once this was tested in randomized, gold-standard studies, it failed to produce benefits. Then the fish oil trend was replaced by the coconut oil trend, which also wasn’t borne out by research.

Years of study on the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba, popular during the 1990s, failed to produce promising results.

Brain games — mind twisters often found online that are supposed to boost mental capability — don't do the trick either. Wu says players will improve at any particular game they practice assiduously, but that doesn't mean their minds are sharper overall. They don't improve at any other mental tasks, or even at any other brain games. 

Ibuprofen and vitamin E

In 2001, researchers found possible evidence that anti-inflammatory medicines similar to ibuprofen might be useful to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but large double-blind studies in subsequent years failed to show effectiveness.

There does appear to be some benefit to high doses of vitamin E, Wu said — up to 2,000 mg a day, compared with the 15 mg a day recommended for most adults. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that cognitive decline was slower in patients taking high doses of the vitamin in addition to standard Alzheimer’s treatment, but the difference, though significant, was modest.

It can be and is used in patients with dementia, Wu said, as long as they tolerate it. In large amounts, the vitamin has a host of possible side effects, including:

What will boost your memory?

All this might make it sound depressingly like there is nothing people can do to help maintain cognitive ability and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. But in fact, Wu says, there are many helpful habits people can adopt that are backed by solid research. And none of them involve exotic foods or supplements or strenuous activities:

  • Eat an overall healthy diet and exercise enough to maintain a healthy weight and fitness level. Both diabetes and high cholesterol, which can be controlled or prevented through diet and exercise, raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Be sociable. A landmark 2003 study of older people, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that those who remained socially active were less likely to develop dementia.
  • Keep your mind active. The same 2003 study found that older people who read and played chess and card games also had a lower risk of dementia.
  • Dance or play an instrument. Again, these activities were associated with a reduced chance of developing dementia in the 2003 study.
  • Get a little time in the sun. It’s not a treatment for overall cognitive health, Wu said, but sun is a visual stimulus that increases alertness.

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