Sales of purported brain-health supplements such as fish oil and jellyfish are expected to reach $5.8 billion by 2023, but in a report released recently, an AARP panel of brain experts called them a huge waste of money for healthy seniors seeking to avoid or reverse dementia.

"The market is so large they get by without rigorous documentation of the efficacy of their products," says neurologist Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minnesota. He and other members of the Global Council on Brain Health do not recommend any dietary supplements to prevent, slow or reverse cognitive decline.

The authors of the report do recommend further study of supplement use for individuals who have vitamin deficiencies, said Dr. John Olichney, a neurologist who co-leads the UC Davis Health's Alzheimer's Disease Center, and that's exactly what his team is doing when it comes to vitamin D. He said the preliminary UCD research has shown "some tantalizing associations with cognitive decline," enough evidence that they have embarked on a randomized clinical trial.

When it comes to healthy subjects, though, Olichney also is concerned that the search for a magic pill that will prevent dementia is leading people to do things that compromise their health.

"Supplements ... are being taken largely without the endorsement or prescription of a doctor," he said. "There's a lot of unnecessary spending, and there's also unnecessary confidence that if you take supplements, you can prevent dementia, and there aren't high-quality randomized clinical trials showing that prevention effect empirically."

Most people would be better off ensuring that they are getting a balanced, natural food diet rather than manmade supplementation, he said, because people taking supplements may think they're inoculated from a problem when in fact they're making a negative trade-off.

While some seniors with nutritional deficiencies may well benefit from the use of supplements, Olichney said, they are in the minority. It's important, he said, that seniors see their primary care physicians and get the blood tests that will reveal whether they need supplements and employ science to ensure they have adequate vitamin levels.

Rather than taking would-be memory enhancers, the Global Council on Brain Health recommended that seniors — and indeed everyone — take other steps to keep their brains sharp.

They stressed in a 2018 report that the all-too-common Western diet (high in salt, sugar, excess calories and saturated fats) leads to high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions that not only sabotage heart health but also undermine cognitive function.

The report guidelines are extensive, but in general, they state that if people want to nourish the brain, they should adopt healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet; the DASH diet, more formally known as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension; the Nordic diet; or the MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.

The council also have released reports explaining why sleep, physical activity and mentally stimulating pursuits are also crucial to brain health. The physicians on the council have urged seniors to embrace mentally stimulating pursuits such as taking classes in dance, photography or a new language, yoga, gardening or volunteering.

The Sacramento Bee