As we get older, many of us do worry about the health and well-being of our brains. No kid taking the SAT who forgets a vocabulary word she’d studied the night before is concerned that this is the first sign of dementia. But as the years pass, you ask yourself if forgetting someone’s name, wondering why you walked into a room, or hearing your partner say, “But I just told you that yesterday–you never remember anything I say” are all normal variations of brain function or the first sign of something more serious.
Most of the time no one notices these memory issues except you, and this is called subjective cognitive impairment (SCI), although my patients often call it brain fog.
Brain fog can be temporary, a manifestation of some other problem like a vitamin deficiency or an underactive thyroid, or it can be caused by a chronic condition like fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, chronic Lyme disease, a reaction to toxic mold, or a side effect of a prescription drug. Clear the underlying problem and the brain fog clears as well.
It’s the longer-lasting cognitive impairment with no underlying issues that merits concern. Consider this question: “Do you feel your memory or thinking has changed over the last five or ten years?” If you answer yes, that’s SCI. If you answer no, you’d be classified as a person with no cognitive impairment.
Here’s why SCI is a concern
When compared with people who have no cognitive impairment, those with subject subjective cognitive impairment are statistically at increased risk of developing worsening dementia with age. Increased risk doesn’t necessarily mean that Alzheimer’s is in the cards, especially if you take some steps now.
What it does mean is that SCI should be taken seriously, especially as there are many situations in which it is totally reversible. Treat someone’s severe hypothyroidism, B-12 deficiency, or chronic Lyme and within weeks their cognitive impairment vanishes.
As you ponder memory supplements, consider these two scenarios:
You yourself have no subjective cognitive impairment (to the best of your knowledge), but there is age-related dementia among some of the older adults in your family and you want to take some preventive steps.
This is my own situation. I’ve been taking memory-boosting supplements (also called smart supplements or nootropics) for more than 20 years. I have a pretty good memory, despite a brain clogged with information both useful and trivial. Did those years of supplements actually do anything? I must have some faith since I keep taking them.
You do have subjective cognitive impairment. First, get a check-up to make sure something reversible (low B-12, for example) isn’t being overlooked. Second, take a glance at this Health Tip I wrote a couple years ago that covers nine steps you can take to prevent dementia. A lot of this you know already (superb nutrition, exercise, keeping your brain active), but it never hurts to review the list occasionally.
My daily memory supplements
Finally, here’s my list of memory-enhancing supplements. Each is twice a day.
- Phosphatidyl serine. This versatile memory enhancer acts on the brain chemical acetylcholine, needed for focus and memory.
- Phosphatidyl choline. Another component needed for acetylcholine production.
Depending on product availability, I take these either separately or combined in a product called BodyBio PC.
- Acetyl-L-Carnitine. This is a brain “energizer”
- Lion’s Mane. One of the newer smart drugs, extracted from mushrooms, it has been shown in studies to improve focus and memory.
- Neurologix. This is an extract of spearmint combined with citicoline, again shown in studies to have beneficial effects for focus, memory, and recall.
But honestly, as devoted as I am to my supplements for memory support and enhancement, lifestyle choices have them all beat hands down. My plan: a daily diet filled with high-nutrient foods, regular exercise, good sound sleep, stress under control…plus keeping my brain firing by writing these Health Tips.
David Edelberg, MD