As you age, it’s common to become a little more forgetful. “Changes in memory are thought to be caused by various factors including changes in brain function, physiological changes in both brain tissue and neurons, and decreased blood flow to the brain,” says Guru Ramanathan, chief innovation officer and SVP for GNC.
In addition, hormones can influence parts of the brain that support memory, so as we age and hormone levels change, “brain fog” can result, says Jenn LaVardera, a registered dietitian for Hamptons RD in Southampton, New York. Changes typically include forgetfulness and taking slightly longer than usual to complete various cognitive tasks, such as balancing your checkbook.
While these types of changes have very little impact on quality of life, “more serious ones can result in memory lapses, cause confusion, and can significantly impact quality of life,” Ramanathan says. Serious changes are scary, so he suggests consulting a physician if you are concerned.
But if “Where are my keys?” or “Has anyone seen my wallet?” have become a common refrain, take heart in the fact that certain supplements have been shown to help with supporting cognitive health and memory function in adults. But before you buy, read on for information on the best memory supplements as well as what to look for on the label.
5 of the Best Memory Supplements
A host of nutrients—from magnesium to choline—and vitamins, including A, C, D and B12, are essential for brain function. “Vitamin C plays an important role in neurotransmitter production and function,” says Ramanathan, who also cites gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA), choline, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) as nutrients that play a major role in memory function. In addition, some studies suggest that botanicals including ginkgo biloba and huperzine A also help keep the brain in top form (though others contradict these findings).
While you can get some of these vitamins and nutrients from eating a healthy diet, certain supplements and vitamins available at your local pharmacy or health food store may specifically help support memory function associated with aging. While a lot of the research that’s out there in regard to the effectiveness of supplements is inconclusive or insufficient, here are a handful of supplements that have shown promise for curtailing memory loss:
Particular brain receptors important for learning and memory depend on this mineral for their regulation, which is why Dr. Carolyn Dean, a medical doctor, naturopath, and medical advisory board member for the Nutritional Magnesium Association, says magnesium is “the first supplement to consider for memory problems as well as enhanced brain function.”
Dean cites a 2004 MIT study that describes magnesium as a critical component of the cerebrospinal fluid that keeps learning and memory receptors active (1). Dean warns that not all forms of magnesium are easily absorbed by the body, and that it’s difficult to get enough from diet alone due to mineral-depleted soils. She recommends 600 milligrams of magnesium citrate powder daily. When mixed with water, the powder dissolves and can be sipped throughout the day.
A small 2018 study conducted at the University of California – Los Angeles found that supplements of the substance found in turmeric, the spice that gives Indian curry its bright color, improved both memory and mood in people with mild, age-related memory loss (2). In memory tests, the people taking 90 milligrams of curcumin twice daily improved by 28 percent over an 18-month period. The researchers plan to conduct a follow-up study with a larger number of people.
Vitamin E, an antioxidant, has been linked to improved cognitive performance. In large clinical trials, high doses of vitamin E have been shown to help people with moderate dementia, albeit modestly. Studies analyzed in a 2014 review published in the journal Nutrition confirmed that vitamin E supplementation (at a dose of 2000 IU/day for an average of two years) is safe and free of side effects in the elderly (3). Researchers confirmed vitamin E’s validity as a nutritional compound to promote healthy brain aging and delay functional decline.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Research suggests that eating foods rich in omega-3’s, such as fish, plant and nut oils, and English walnuts, may lower your Alzheimer’s risk. “They help with communication between neurons,” explains LaVardera. But there’s insufficient research about the effectiveness of fish oil supplements, which come in two varieties, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA. One 2014 study suggests that omega-3 fatty acid supplements have the potential to improve cognitive performance and functional brain activation, but more research is needed to better understand if supplements over a longer period of time might be helpful in terms of preventing thinking skills decline in people without memory loss (4). Taking 1 gram per day of combined DHA and EPA is generally recommended to maintain brain health.
This antioxidant found in the skin of purple and red fruits like grapes and blueberries has shown some promise in preventing the deterioration of the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory, according to a 2015 study (5). How much resveratrol do you need to boost brain function? One study on healthy older adults found that taking 200 milligrams per day for 26 weeks improved memory (6). (An occasional glass of red wine, which contains resveratrol, can’t hurt either!)
All of these supplements have demonstrated potential, but it bears repeating that more research is required as to their brain benefits.
How to Choose Supplements for Memory
When it comes to considering memory supplements, it’s important not to buy into the hype. Due to a legal loophole, dietary supplements do not have to pass the rigorous FDA process to ensure they are safe and effective. In other words, many products that claim to “support” or “help” memory may not. Also, look out for the word “natural” on the label. While the word sounds harmless, it’s one of those marketing buzzwords that raise red flags.
The lack of FDA oversight makes assessing their strength, purity and safety difficult. “In general, steer clear from questionable small-name brands, since larger brands tend to have strict safety protocols,” says LaVardera. “Also, look for the GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) seal on the label.” In addition, a third-party certification from the USP (United States Pharmacopeia), NSF International or Consumer Lab shows that these products have undergone rigorous third-party certification to make sure their ingredients meet quality standards.
When it comes to magnesium, Dean suggests steering clear of two forms in particular: magnesium aspartate and glutamate. Both are components of aspartame, which should be avoided. “Aspartame is a neurotoxin,” she explains. Other harmful ingredients include trans fats, artificial colors and flavors, and fillers, which inhibit or slow absorption.
Another rule of thumb when it comes to choosing vitamins: Always opt for natural over synthetics. “If the brackets after a vitamin have a food listed, it’s natural,” says Dean. “If it has a chemical listed, it’s synthetic.” Some products contain both.
Precautions When Talking Brain Health Supplements
The side effects of the unregulated memory supplements market are not well documented. However, from what information is available, they range from mild (e.g., nausea from gingko biloba) to severe. In regard to vitamin E, for instance, a 2005 study (7) raised concerns about an increased risk of death in people who take high doses (> 400 IU/d).
In addition, many supplements interact with medications, often with dangerous results. Ginkgo biloba, for one, should never be paired with blood thinners, blood pressure medications or SSRI antidepressants. If you have an ongoing health condition, always consult a physician before beginning a supplement regimen. Similarly, if you’re pregnant, you’ll want to check with your health care provider because you have different nutrient needs when you’re expecting.
Once your doctor green lights supplementation, it’s important to stick with the dosages on the label because, as LaVardera points out, “it is possible to overdose on any supplement or vitamin.” What’s more, she cautions that supplementation is not a substitute for a poor diet. “Nutrients in isolation don’t always have the same effect as nutrients in food,” she says. “Eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and other healthful foods to get the majority of your nutrients, and use supplements to help you meet the recommended amounts.