At age 78, the fabled actress, Dame Judi Dench has worked with everyone from Gwenyth Paltrow to Pierce Brosnan, and won practically every available acting award.
But, that doesn't mean she's immune to the common issues of aging.
In a recent interview with Jon Snow, a reporter with the Britain-based, Channel 4 News, Dench admitted turning to memory supplements to help her keep track of the things her characters are supposed to say and do.
"It is more difficult to remember, to retain some things," Dench said to Snow. "I take that wonderful thing called IQ [a specific brand of supplement] every morning—long may it last."
Dench is no stranger to dealing with age-related obstacles to her acting.
She has to have special, large-print scripts made to accommodate her vision problems caused by macular degeneration—a disease which gradually diminishes the sharpness and clarity of a person's central vision.
But, unlike bold-faced type, which is demonstrably easier for aging eyes to read, the effectiveness of memory supplements isn't so easily determined.
Memory supplements explained
Most products that purport to be memory-enhancing come in either pill or powder form.
David Perlmutter, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and author of "Power Up Your Brain," describes the three basic functions of memory supplements, and their common ingredients:
Increase overall brain energy: This is one of the most popular categories of memory supplement among consumers. Typical ingredients include:
- Coenzyme Q10—an enzyme found in every cell in the human body that is essential for cell repair and growth.
- N-acetylcysteine—an antioxidant thought to reduce cholesterol and increase immune system functioning.
- Carnitine—a chemical that enables the body to transform fat into usable energy.
- Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NADH)—a substance important for energy production and dopamine creation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that contributes to a variety of mental functions, including: cognition, learning, voluntary movement, sleep cycles and mood.
Enhance brain cell functioning: These supplements aid memory by providing the nutrients that brain cells need to operate smoothly and boast the inclusion of vital cell membrane components, including:
- Omega-3 fatty acids—thought to reduce inflammation, lower heart disease risk, decrease joint pain and stiffness in people with arthritis and possibly fend off cognitive impairment caused by Alzheimer's disease.
- Choline—a substance that performs similar functions to B vitamins, including reducing inflammation and aiding in nervous system functioning.
- Phosphatidylserine—a chemical found in cell membranes throughout the human body. The cell membrane is vital for the proper functioning of cells because it helps process nutrients.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—an especially-potent type of omega-3, that is important for the proper development of nerve tissues.
Promote new brain cell growth: The ability to create new brain cells—also known as neurogenesis—is an area of great interest for brain researchers, according to Perlmutter. DHA and lithium, two elements thought to play a prominent role in new brain cell growth, are commonly found in these kinds of supplements.
Do memory-enhancers really work?
The one question that is on the tip of the tongue of anyone considering taking a supplement is, predictably, the one that is most difficult to answer.
Numerous studies have hinted at the potential brain-boosting benefits of each of the aforementioned ingredients. However, inconsistent and conflicting research methods and results have merely served to confuse scientists and laymen alike.
Only a select few components appear to have a legitimately positive effect on people with purely age-related cognitive decline, according to Perlmutter. "Despite various media claims, very few of these components, with the exception of phosphatidylsterine and DHA, have a dramatic effect on memory," he says.
For example, Perlmutter cites a 2010 investigation, called the MIDAS study, which indicated that a 900mg daily dose of DHA, given to healthy older adults (age 55 and older) could have a positive impact on memory function.
But what about people in their 80s and 90s, who are suffering from chronic diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's?
Researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University recently tried to determine whether or not the promising effects of DHA in spry aging adults, could also benefit people in the mild or moderate stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Unfortunately, DHA had no apparent effect on the seniors in the study, leading authors to conclude, "There is no basis for recommending DHA supplementation for patients with Alzheimer's disease." They did, however, admit that further research was necessary to explore whether or not people in the early stages of Alzheimer's could derive some benefit from DHA.
Could you or your loved one obtain memory-boosting benefits?
Cognitively healthy adults may derive some benefit from certain supplements, as Dench claims she does, but there's no one-size-fits all approach to memory preservation in the aging population.
With regards to older adults who are already experiencing issues with mental functioning, one thing is for certain. Right now, no matter what commercials and advertisements may claim, no pill, powder or injection can stave off, slow down, or cure Alzheimer's disease.
And, no one should start taking a supplement of any kind without first talking to their doctor. Supplements can interact with prescription medications causing dangerous drug interactions and may also have negative effects on individuals with certain health conditions.
Perlmutter says that he does recommend supplements to some of his patients. But, the suggestion always comes as part of a more holistic approach to mental and physical health. "The cornerstone of our program focuses on a low-carbohydrate, high "good" fat diet along with regular aerobic exercise," he says.
There's increasing evidence that aging adults can also help prevent memory loss by exercising their brains regularly.
Even after a physician gives the green light for you or your loved one to try a new supplement, keep in mind that none of these products are regulated by the FDA. This means that it's nearly impossible to determine how strong or safe a given product really is. This includes memory-boosters that are labeled as "all-natural," such as Gingko biloba, ginseng and Chinese club moss.
Always exercise caution when introducing a new supplement and remember, if you have reservations, it's always a good idea to seek a second opinion.