Are Memory Supplements More Than Wishful Thinking?

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Are Memory Supplements More Than Wishful Thinking?

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“Memory supplements” are a half-billion-dollar industry. But a paucity of government regulation means manufacturers can make bold claims without having to back them up.

Memory, it has been said, makes us who we are. Few persons with experience losing a loved one to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease would be inclined to disagree. There are many terrible ailments that can befall an individual, but the idea of our self-identity being effaced is a unique sort of horror.

It is this fear that makes so-called memory supplements a $600+ million per year industry despite next to no solid evidence that such products offer any benefits. Plus, it’s a lot easier simply to take a pill than to make lifestyle changes that have been shown to aid memory and other cognitive functioning.

In May 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that it had identified 490 memory supplement products on the market, 27 of which illegally claimed to treat or prevent memory-related diseases. But for all that, between 2006 and 2015 the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates memory and all other dietary supplements (the category under which “memory supplements” falls), sent out a total of 11 warning letters, one injunction (“against a dietary supplement firm and its principals whose products’ advertising continued to contain prohibited claims to treat or cure Alzheimer’s, among other diseases, despite prior FDA warnings to stop making claims to treat the disease”), and conducted one seizure of “dietary supplements that were marketed for treating a variety of diseases or conditions, including dementia.”

In other words, so long as markets avoid stating that their product cures or treats a specific memory-related disease, currently there is nothing to dissuade manufacturers of “memory supplements” from making unsubstantiated claims about their products. At best, a “memory supplement” may contain an ingredient or compound that peer-reviewed scientific study has shown may bear some relation to cognitive function. For example, the Mayo Clinic notes that one symptom of vitamin B-12 deficiency is memory loss. Therefore, a “memory supplement with B-12 may in fact enhance memory functioning in a deficient individual. But as Orly Avitzur, a neurologist and medical director for Consumer Reports, says, “[I]f your B-12 levels are normal, getting extra won’t give you a mental boost.”

More insidious are supplements with even less legitimate grounds to stake a claim to memory enhancement. A prime example is Prevagen, currently one of the most popular such products. Quincy Bioscience, which manufacturers, claims that Prevagen “has been clinically shown to help with mild memory problems associated with aging” due to the ingredient apoaequorin, a protein found in jellyfish. What they don’t tell you is that the clinical study on which this claim is based was conducted by officers of Quincy Bioscience themselves, including Mark Underwood, who is specifically named in a recent lawsuit brought against Quincy Bioscience by the Federal Trade Commission and the State of New York for “deceptive business practices and false advertising […] in connection with the labeling, advertising, marketing, promotion, distribution, and sale of Prevagen.”

Perhaps most insidious are websites posing as information sources but that are actually nothing more than product shills. A good example is Consumer Health Digest (notice the similarity with the name of the well respected and impartial Consumer Reports), which currently features an article entitled “Top Rated Memory Pills of 2018—Do They Really Work?” Their answer is, of course, yes. “Due to significant progress in science and medicine, we’re able to boost* our memory in a natural manner,” the anonymous author claims. “[…] These supplements prevent or reduce* memory loss and help you feel sharper in your day to day life. […] Although most studies that examine the efficacy of memory pills are still ongoing, there’s still a growing body of evidence which suggests that memory-enhancing dietary supplements are highly effective. For example, scientists at the Oxford University conducted a study wherein they discovered that smart drugs and supplements that are formulated to improve* cognitive abilities really do work.”

The asterisks, as well as a hyperlink to the supposed Oxford study, take you not to supporting documentation for any of these claims, but rather to disclaimers intended to indemnify the website for making them. And if you read all the way to the end of the article, you’ll find a “**Disclosure of Material connection: Some of the links in the post above are ‘associate sales links.’ This means if you can click on the link and purchase an item, we will receive a commission. […]”

As the Government Accountability Office points out, “Memory supplements are a growing industry that may target a particularly vulnerable population—older adults experiencing memory loss and decline, including conditions such as dementia for which there is no known cure.”

Between a healthy diet, physical activity, getting enough sleep, staying socially connected, and partaking in a variety of mentally engaging tasks, there are things you can do to minimize age-related memory loss and perhaps even stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s and other serious degenerative conditions. And for all we know, there may come a time when memory supplements are a reality undeserving of scare quotes. But, despite the popularity of “memory supplements,” today is not that time.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. Contact: [email protected]

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