Few of us can remember anything that happened to us before age 3. And a phenomenon called “childhood amnesia” shows that before we develop adult memory systems around age 9, we forget a whole lot of what happened in our early years. Flash-forward to our adult years, and our memories are on a steady decline—or a rapid one, for the 10 million baby boomers with Alzheimer’s.
Given the importance of our memory and brain function, it’s no surprise that brain-boosting products are becoming more popular for a whole swath of the population that wants to remember more for longer. One key subsection of growth has been in supplements that claim to boost memory and brain function.
Here’s a quick overview of how the adult memory system works, plus an unbiased list of which supplements for memory have been backed by science and which are yet to be proven effective.
How does our memory system work?
When it comes to our memory, we’ve long been given the analogy of a storage bin. But science shows that our memory system is much more complex than simply tucking away a thought or anecdote for safe keeping.
In reality, our brain is home to a vast array of networks and connections that work together in a variety of ways. Neurons, your brain’s nerve cells, talk with each other when certain neurotransmitters are present. The strength of the connection between your neurons impacts how memories are formed. One Science Daily article put it this way: when you receive many emails at once, it’s easy to miss one. But when you get a hundred emails from the same person about the same issue, reminding you to take care of something, then that issue is in the front of your mind. Similarly, if the strength between your neurons is maintained, it forms a memory.
You might be thinking that you don’t really care as much about how your memory system works, as long as it does work. Long story short, the health of your brain has a direct impact on the strength of your memories. About 40% of people 65 or older have age-associated memory impairment. By the time we’re 80, up to 20% of the nerve connections can be lost in our hippocampus (the part of the brain where the process we just talked about occurs).
Which dietary supplements can help with memory?
The explosion of Alzheimer’s and dementia is just one driving force behind a rise in memory-boosting supplements. Another is the American population’s growing interest in wellness and our inability to pay sky-high prices for pharmaceuticals to help overcome key issues. These factors, and more, are making memory-boosting supplements more popular than ever.
Here’s a quick list of the most popular memory-boosting supplements, and whether science says they live up to their hype.
Huperzine A: A supplement made from Chinese club moss, Huperzine A is currently used for Alzheimer’s as well as learning and memory enhancement. It’s being studied alongside other supplements in “hybrid” formulas meant to help with Alzheimer’s. It is thought to help with memory by boosting acetylcholine, a chemical that our nerves use to communicate in the brain and other areas of the body. Preliminary research showed that taking the supplement orally for a month improved memory for teenagers and older children who experienced memory loss. However, Huperzine A has not been proven effective for curbing age-related memory loss.
Omega-3 fatty acid: A recent study took a close look at the effects of fish oil on young adults whose brains were still developing. The 18-to-25 year olds who took fish oil once daily for six months had up to a 23% better working memory than the group that didn’t take fish oil during the same period. Omega-3 fatty acids are something your body can’t make on its own, so consider getting this nutrient via supplements or your diet.
Vitamin E: This essential vitamin hasn’t been shown to decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, but studies have shown it could help slow its progression. But because research has pointed to risk for those who take high doses of Vitamin E, it’s crucial to discuss with your doctor before taking this supplement.
Gingko biloba: Perhaps the most popular supplement claiming to boost memory, gingko biloba is extracted from the tree with the same name. The herb is one of the top-selling supplements in the U.S. and has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Although a few small studies showed that gingko could provide small cognitive improvements for elderly people with dementia, a number of major studies were unable to conclude any tangible memory-boosting benefits from gingko biloba. The bottom line? The Mayo Clinic says this supplement hasn’t lived up to the hype and should not be relied on as your sole memory aid. However, it is generally safe to use unless you have issues that would be negatively affected by its blood-thinning qualities.
Ginseng: This herb is often taken with gingko biloba and is generally safe to use. Asian ginseng has been shown to help with fatigue and improve quality of life for some users. However, its effect on memory has only been studied on a small scale, so it’s not considered a proven supplement for memory just yet.
Other supplements that are being studied in relation to memory include the amino acid Acetyl-L-carnitine; DHEA, a hormone associated with age that has shown some serious long-term side effects; and bacopa, an herb used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years that has shown some promise for memory but also has a high risk of drug interactions that warrants further study.
If you’re looking to boost concentration and focus rather than memory itself, you can also consider exploring nootropics. Here’s our list of the Top Rated Nootropics for brain health and focus.