Maintaining Memory: Remember Better By Feeding Your Brain

Have you ever walked into a room, then forgotten why? Most of us experience such memory lapses. They can happen at any age. But slips in memory do become more frequent as we get older, giving rise to the catch phrase “a senior moment.” A plethora of supplements promises to improve mental sharpness. EN weighs in on them and offers tips for keeping your brain fit.

Brain Food. The brain is a nutritionally needy organ. So it's no surprise that skipping meals and not eating enough is linked to poor memory.

“People who eat balanced diets have better memory than those who don't,” says Paul Spiers, Ph.D., an expert on memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Here are the top dietary contenders:

Carbs. In a study of 20 healthy older people, those who ate the most carbohydrates, which are ultimately broken down to glucose (the simplest form of sugar and the brain's preferred fuel source), exhibited better memory and task performance. Don't load up on sweets, though; instead, rely on whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Fat. Fatty acids help maintain the structure of cell membranes in the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, abundant in oily fish) and monounsaturated fats (such as in olive oil) appear to be particularly protective. In an Italian study, people who ate the most “mono” fats fared best on memory and attention tests.

Antioxidants. These protect against free radicals and may preserve memory by limiting neuron damage. One study found that people who took in the most vitamin E (200–500 IU) did best on cognitive tests. Other research links vitamins C and E with less cognitive decline.

B Vitamins. Vitamins B6, B12 and folate appear to aid brain function by lowering blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to clogged arteries, which slow blood flow to the brain. “B6 is most linked with memory,” says Katherine Tucker, Ph.D., a nutrition epidemiologist at Tufts University in Boston, “but there is evidence that improving intake of all three can help minimize age-related deterioration in cognitive function.”

Supplements to the Rescue? Of the slew of supplements purporting to aid memory, most contain similar substances in varying combinations and amounts. However, cautions Spiers, “There is no sound research showing that any of the products work.”

Not everyone agrees they are useless. Ray Sahelian, M.D., author of Mind Boosters (St. Martin's Press, 2000), believes some products have value. But he is quick to add that no supplement can reverse a decline in memory. The most it can hope to do is slow the loss.

Ginkgo. The most popular memory-boosting ingredient is Ginkgo biloba, an herb believed to inhibit oxidation of cells and enhance circulation. But research results on ginkgo are mixed. Some experts recommend it only for older people with known cognitive impairment. Be cautious if you are taking other blood-thinning agents.

Other Herbs. Huperzine A, a compound isolated from Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata), is thought to inhibit the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, a brain chemical crucial for memory. People with Alzheimer's disease have shown benefit from Huperzine A, but there's no evidence it works in young, healthy people. Evidence of the effectiveness of gotu kola and rosemary is anecdotal or based on animal studies.

Choline. This essential nutrient helps form phosphatidylcholine (lecithin), a fat in brain cells, and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Levels of both decrease with age. Only supplements supply significant amounts. Experts believe choline has more research to back up claims than other supplements, especially in older people.

Phosphatidylserine. This brain fat, known as PS, keeps neurons flexible for transmitting nerve impulses and helps make acetylcholine. A hitch: research has relied on bovine PS, but most supplements contain soy PS.

ALC and DMAE. Acetyl-L-carnitine and dimethyl-amino-ethanol are chemically similar to choline. Most studies show little benefit so far.

Coenzyme Q10. Known as CoQ10, blood levels of this naturally occurring compound drop with age. CoQ10 may provide antioxidant protection.

EN's Bottom Line. If you are older and increasingly forgetful, you might want to try a memory-sharpening supplement. But first try these tips:

Brain Boosters
Eat a balanced diet. Include fruits, vegetables, nuts and seafood.
Take a daily multivitamin; a senior formula will give you extra B's.
Get adequate sleep (deep sleep is a powerful memory enhancer).
Control blood pressure (high blood pressure is linked to poor memory).
Get regular exercise.
Stay mentally active (take up a hobby, solve crossword puzzles, etc.).
Next month: EN explores dietary links to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

A Sampling of Memory Products
These product formulations have not necessarily been tested, but contain ingredients that show promise. They have not been proved effective, nor are they endorsed by EN.

Legend for Chart:

A - Brand
B - Ingredients
C - EN's Comments




Ginkgo biloba

Meets's list of products with
approved quality. Other products standardized to
24% flavone glycosides may be comparable.

Brain Fuel

Vitamins C, E, B6, B12 and folic acid, Ginkgo
biloba, gotu kola, phosphatidylcholine

Most senior “multi” supplements provide
similar or higher doses of the key vitamins, though
not herbs. Phosphatidylcholine is the most

Huperzine A, vitamin E

Decent dose of natural E (50 IU). No firm evidence
Huperzine A improves memory in healthy people.

Brain Care

Vitamin E, PS, Ginkgo biloba, CoQ10,
phosphatidylcholine, DHA

Provides substantial E (200 IU). Unknown
effectiveness of soy PS. CoQ10 dose is consistent
with expert recommendations.

Brain Protector

Ginkgo biloba, PS complex, ALC, CoQ10, choline,
vitamins E, B6 and B12

ALC is touted as an antioxidant.

DMAE Complex


DMAE's actions are believed to be comparable to
those of ALC.

Memory Last

Green tea leaf extract, rosemary leaf extract,
Ginkgo biloba, Huperzine A

The green tea leaf and rosemary extracts are thought
to exert antioxidant activity.


Ginkgo biloba, gotu kola, rosemary, DHA, vitamin E,
Huperzine A.

Contains only 12% flavone glycosides. Very small
vitamin E dose.

Fresh Samantha “Get Smart”

Vitamin C, Ginkgo biloba, gotu kola

Rich source of vitamin C, but 280 calories per
Think! Bar

Ginkgo biloba, gotu kola, ALC, PS, vitamins C and E,
choline bitartrate

Contains only small amounts of most of the potential
memory boosters listed. Provides the equivalent of
five teaspoons of sugar.
PS = phosphatidylserine

CoQ10 = coenzyme Q10

DMAE = dimethyl-amino-ethanol

IU = International Units

DHA = docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid

ALC = acetyl-L-carnitine

© Copyright, 2001 by Environmental Nutrition, Inc., 52 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10024


By Linda Antinoro, J.D., R.D.

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