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You can't buy good health but you can buy good health information. Check out these newly released Special Health Reports from Harvard Medical School:

Dietary supplements for mind and memory: what works, what doesn't, from the Harvard Men's Health Watch

Can taking a pill improve memory or boost brain function? That's an important question to ask about the long list of supplements that allegedly "support" or "help" the brain. These include three B vitamins (folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12) and antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and coenzyme Q10. But wait, there's more: the herbal supplements huperzine A and ginkgo biloba, along with nutraceuticals like fish oil (containing omega-3 fatty acids), curcumin, and coconut oil.

Cross off most of these products for lack of solid scientific evidence, reports the December 2012 Harvard Men's Health Watch. "There are a lot of things out there for which we have no data on whether they are safe or do anything to help," says Dr. Gad Marshall, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Want to do something proven to help maintain mind and memory? "My strongest recommendations are a Mediterranean-style diet and regular physical exercise," Dr. Marshall says.

Would-be supplement shoppers also need to be aware of safety issues that have been raised about some so-called brain boosters.

  • Vitamin E at doses higher than 400 international units (IU) per day is risky for people with active cardiovascular disease or risk factors for it.
  • Taking 400 IU or more of vitamin E per day has been linked to an increase in prostate cancer.
  • Vitamin E, ginkgo biloba, and fish oil supplements slightly inhibit blood clotting. Combining one or more of these with an anticoagulant drug such as warfarin (Coumadin) could cause extra bruising or bleeding.

Because of a legal loophole, dietary supplements do not have to pass the rigorous FDA process to ensure they are safe and effective. That means many of these products are on the shelves claiming to "support" or "help" memory because of a gap in the law—not because we have strong evidence that those claims are true.

Read the full-length article: "Mind and memory supplement scorecard"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch

  • How to prevent clots in the legs and lungs
  • On call: What causes dry eyes?
  • On call: Headaches from headache medication?
  • Mind and memory supplement scorecard
  • Your PSA test result: What's next?
  • When it's okay to delay hernia surgery
  • Backed-up bowels? Don't get stuck on daily "regularity"
  • In the journals: Healthy living after 75
  • In the journals: No need for ulcer drugs after eradicating H. pylori bacteria?
  • In the journals: Got yogurt? Then you might not get high blood pressure
  • In the journals: Knee replacements rise sharply in people on Medicare

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.