The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) is an independent collaboration of scientists, doctors, scholars and policy experts from all over the world. Their report, The Real Deal on Brain Health Supplements, looked at the evidence for a range of supplements including B vitamins, vitamins D and E and others commonly marketed for brain health including omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, caffeine, coenzyme Q10 and ginkgo biloba.
They concluded that there is little evidence that these supplements help healthy older people, and they could even pose a risk to health: “Scientific evidence does not support the use of any supplement to prevent, slow, reverse, or stop cognitive decline or dementia or other related neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s.”
For fish oil, the report says: “Overall, there is insufficient evidence to recommend taking a fish oil-derived omega-3 supplement for brain health”.
Brain-health supplements generated $3 billion in sales globally in 2016 and are projected to reach $5.8 billion by 2023 – this report suggests it’s a massive waste of money.
Vitamin B12 deficiency and folate (vitamin B9) deficiency may negatively affect brain health; therefore, supplementation may be beneficial for people with lower-than-recommended levels of these B vitamins. However, be careful about assuming that means vegans as around one in five people over the age of 60 in the UK are thought to be lacking in vitamin B12.
The report’s findings fall in line with those from a recent Cochrane collaboration looking at evidence for the effects of vitamin and mineral supplements on brain function in the over-40s. This gold-standard of studies also found no convincing evidence of positive effects for B vitamins, selenium, zinc, vitamin E and omega-3 supplements, and only tentative evidence of any benefit from the long-term use of antioxidant supplements (beta‐carotene and vitamin C).
An older Cochrane review looking at the effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplements in healthy older people also found no direct evidence that supplements affected the number of people being diagnosed with dementia. Some people taking omega-3 supplements experienced mild gastrointestinal problems.
Experts say there are many steps you can take to help your brain stay sharp – including not smoking, getting enough sleep, exercising and keeping socially engaged and mentally stimulated.
Getting your blood pressure checked regularly is a good idea too as uncontrolled high blood pressure can cause problems by damaging and narrowing the blood vessels in your brain (vascular dementia).
The expert advice is to save your money, exercise, enjoy life and get all the nutrients you need from a healthy diet along with a source of B12.
You may be able to prevent or delay dementia by eating a healthy, balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight, which is much easier on a vegan diet. Avoid animal-based foods, eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, pulses (peas, beans and lentils), wholegrain foods such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta, nuts and seeds and take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Find out more about how to reduce your risk of dementia here.