Bartecchi: What happened to my memory?

As we age, we recognize changes in our memory — generally considered to be a normal part of aging. We may have difficulty remembering things on occasion — where we left our eye glasses or our car keys, the name of an acquaintance, or a password for a website, etc. These are not signs of dementia. This bothers us however because we know or are aware of others who had memory problems associated with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

A Harvard Health article noted that a recent survey found that about 25% of adults over age 50 take a supplement to improve their brain health with the promise of enhancing memory, sharper attention and focus. Harvard tells us “Don’t buy into brain health supplements” for there is no solid proof that any of them work.

If you are bothered by memory changes, especially if progressive, you should consult with your physician to determine if there might be some medical problem that could contribute to memory loss. Examples of things that can cause memory loss include a number of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications, vitamin deficiency (B12), a head injury, a recognized or silent stroke, illegal drug use, thyroid problems, diabetes, cancer therapies and infections such as HIV, TB and syphilis, to name a few. Progressive loss of memory could also result from blood vessel disease, drug or alcohol abuse, causing dementia, or diseases that result in loss of brain cells, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which according to the WHO is the most common form of dementia.

Unfortunately, there is no really effective prescription medication for the treatment or prevention of cognitive decline, though there are many products on the market with a large array of ingredients that claim effectiveness. Our FDA calls them supplements, which it regards as “food” and not a drug, and thus they can sell these products without any proof of effectiveness. There are more than two dozen of these so-called memory enhancers or brain boosters, which make often unsupported claims of safety or effectiveness, which the FDA must periodically challenge in court. These claims are largely based on testimonials, tradition or often little or poor quality research. Companies also often fail to report adverse events caused by the supplement, including strokes and seizures that were reported to them or to the FDA.

According to the Washington Post, companies push their products by heavy advertising in print, radio, television and on the internet. Prevagen’s commercials for example, feature relatable older adults full of robust enthusiasm for its claimed benefits — these people give paid testimonials or “Prevagen content contributions." Prevagen’s effectiveness is based on a synthetic ingredient called apoaequorin designed to replicate a protein found in jellyfish. There is evidence that it probably is digested in the stomach, leaving nothing to get past the blood-brain barrier and act on the brain. An article in the Journal of the AMA stated that the most common example of pseudomedicine (false medicine) is the promotion of dietary supplements to improve cognition and brain health.

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Besides being ineffective, these memory enhancers tend to be quite expensive.

The Mayo Clinic rightly notes that there are no guarantees when it comes to preventing memory loss or dementia, but that certain activities might help maintain mental sharpness: exercise, staying mentally active, socializing regularly, getting organized, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and insuring that your medical conditions are well managed.