Consumer Reports Is Wrong About Memory Supplements
I'm generally a fan of Consumer Reports, but sometimes they make mistakes. Their most recent mistake is in the form of a review of memory supplements. They claim that "there’s virtually no good evidence that such products can prevent or delay memory lapses, mild cognitive impairment, or dementia in older adults." Had they claimed that, so far as they know, there's virtually no good evidence, that would have been true, because evidently there's good evidence they don't know about. Let's take a closer look.
Consumer Reports starts with a warning: supplements can do more harm than good. Of course that's true. Anything misused can do more harm than good. And even when used correctly, some things can do harm. There's a reason that supplement manufacturers generally follow the practice of encouraging their customers to consult physicians before and during use of all supplements: it reduces risk of misuse or exceptional adverse effects due to personal medical conditions or prescription drug interactions.
Beyond risk of misuse and personal exceptions, Consumer Reports points out that supplement manufacturers can be irresponsible. Some sell poorly-tested substances. Some sell well-tested substances at poorly-tested dosages. And some engage in poor quality control. Sadly, that's all too true. When considering a supplement, look for substances and dosages that have demonstrated safety and efficacy in multiple clinical studies on humans -- not just a study in test tubes or on lab rats. And when considering a vendor, look for companies that openly and thoroughly publish their quality control test results (usually called "certificate of analysis").
Unfortunately, few supplements and vendors meet those standards. Many gloss over science. Even more hide their dosages behind secretive proprietary blends. And almost all withhold their quality control test results. Thrivous, however, is exceptional. We put science first in all our formulations, selecting only ingredients that have demonstrated safety and efficacy in multiple clinical studies on humans. Our formulations are open source so that you know exactly what and how much you're taking. And we share all of our quality control test results, from suppliers, manufacturing, and third-party test labs, to ensure that you know as well as we do whether you're getting what you asked for. That doesn't mean we're perfect. But we aim to provide supplements with the greatest potential, based on the best scientific research and quality control processes available to us.
Consumer Reports goes on to reference a number of practices they recommend instead of supplements for improving memory. Their recommendations include:
- Rule Out Other Factors (consult a physician)
- Control Blood Pressure (avoid smoking, consume alcohol moderately, get adequate sleep, and use hypertension pharmaceuticals)
- Get Regular Exercise (aerobic and strength training)
- Eat For Your Heart (Mediterranean and MIND diets)
- Challenge Your Brain (learn new languages and skills, and play games)
- Be Social (visit family and friends, and go to parties)
These are generally great recommendations! At Thrivous, we recommend fasting and meditation, in addition to regular exercise and adequate sleep. We're certainly fans of physician consultations, healthy diets, brain challenges, and socializing too. I'm not sure why Consumer Reports would recommend avoiding supplements altogether while consuming alcohol moderately -- alcohol may be more risky than most supplements. But I agree with their advice to avoid smoking.
Consumer Reports then proceeds with an analysis of the science. But their analysis is sparse, to say the least.
They consider Ginkgo Biloba, pointing out that one 5-year study found no evidence that Ginkgo supplementation supports healthy brain aging. That's true. And there's actually at least a second Ginkgo study of similar length that also found no evidence. However, Consumer Reports fails to acknowledge many other studies that HAVE found evidence, notably a 20-year cohort study. And, perhaps more importantly, Consumer Reports fails to acknowledge studies that have challenged the methods and interpretations of the one study they reference. For more information and references, see the Thrivous article on Ginkgo.
They consider Fish Oil, referring to one study that found no evidence that Fish Oil supports healthy brain aging. In this case, I agree with them that the evidence is weak for this application of Fish Oil supplementation. But make no mistake. Fish Oil supplementation has other applications with high levels of evidence for safety and efficacy. Notably, Fish Oil is in the Thrivous list of top tier geroprotectors for supporting healthy heart aging -- particularly triglyceride management. And it's in the Thrivous list of top tier nootropics for supporting mood.
They also consider B Vitamins, referring to a single review of studies that found no evidence that supplementation of three (B6, B9, and B12) of the eight B Vitamins support healthy brain aging. However, there's a bigger issue here that Consumer Reports fails to acknowledge. B Vitamins are essential for healthy brain function. And because the human body does not synthesize them, they must come from the diet. Between 2% and 12% of Americans consume less than the estimated average requirement of B Vitamins. And a larger unknown percentage consume less than optimal amounts of B Vitamins. Moreover, while studies that have focused on a subset of B Vitamins (usually B6, B9, and B12) have generally been ambivalent, other studies that have focused on safe high doses of the full range of B Vitamins have generally found that supplementation may support healthy brain function. For more information and references, see the Thrivous article on B Vitamins.
That's it. Consumer Reports stops after sparse consideration of Ginkgo, Fish Oil, and B Vitamins. And they conclude from their sparse consideration that "there’s virtually no good evidence that such products can prevent or delay memory lapses, mild cognitive impairment, or dementia in older adults." But they're incorrect. As pointed out above, they've underestimated the science behind brain health applications of Ginkgo, Fish Oil, and B Vitamins. And there's more! They actually aren't even considering supplements with the best evidence for enhancing memory.
The star of the show should be Bacopa Monnieri. Multiple peer-reviewed placebo-controlled double-blind studies on humans and multiple meta-analyses confirm that a sufficient dose of Bacopa may provide a notable improvement to memory after supplementation for 2 to 3 months. How notable? One meta-analysis found the magnitude of effect to be nearly a full standard deviation. That's remarkable! And it's a significant practical difference. Take a look at the studies for yourself. See the Thrivous article on Bacopa.
Consumer reports also isn't considering supplements with the best evidence for supporting healthy brain aging in general. There's more and better science than they've acknowledged. In particular, take a look at Thrivous articles on Acetyl L Carnitine (ALCAR), Alpha GPC, and Phosphatidylserine.
If you want an unbiased third-party assessment of the science, check out the Examine.com articles on the supplements I've noted. Unlike Consumer Reports, Examine.com specializes in supplements, providing broad and deep analysis. And they give high-to-medium evidence and efficacy scores to cognitive applications of Ginkgo, Fish Oil, Bacopa, ALCAR, Alpha GPC, and Phosphatidylserine -- so far as I know, they don't address Vitamin B Complex in combination.
Toward the end of their review, Consumer Reports advises people to "avoid branded 'brain boosting' blends." No reason given. But based on my own reviews of competing nootropic products, I understand their concerns. Most have all too typical problems: lacking evidence, overused ingredients, secret formulas, and ineffective dosages -- not to mention crazy prices. And, in fact, our interest in solving such problems was among the reasons we founded Thrivous.
So, to an extent, I sympathize with Consumer Reports. There is indeed a paucity of evidence on the safety and efficacy of many products, and an abundance of evidence for the negligence or secrecy of many vendors. But despite them, the science for memory supplements is stronger than Consumer Reports has acknowledged. And it's entirely possible to develop and distribute safe and effective nootropics with transparent quality control at reasonable prices. Thrivous does it every day, as illustrated by Clarity Daily Nootropic.