Keeping our brains sharp and memories strong becomes a big deal as we age. We try everything — puzzles, exercise, healthy eating, you name it.
But what if there’s a pill that could give our brains an extra boost? Prevagen, an over-the-counter (OTC) supplement, claims to do just that. The big question is: Does science support these claims? Is it a magic pill we’ve been waiting for or just wishful thinking?
To help us figure it out, Jessica Langbaum, PhD, senior director of research strategy with the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, breaks down whether Prevagen truly lives up to its promises or if it’s too good to be true.
What is Prevagen?
Prevagen is a daily pill or tablet that contains apoaequorin, a protein that can bind with calcium.
“Prevagen uses a lab-made (synthetic) version of this protein that is originally found in glow-in-the-dark jellyfish called Aequorea victoria,” Dr. Langbaum said.
The makers of Prevagen claim their product improves memory loss associated with aging and increases healthy brain function. The thought is that including apoaequorin in these supplements might help maintain the calcium levels in the brain and reduce memory loss and mental decline.
Calcium is important for the brain because it helps neurons (the brain’s messengers) communicate with each other. Low levels of calcium can impact brain function and memory.
Is there any truth to the claims?
Research suggests no. There are no studies that prove apoaequorin improves memory and thinking abilities.
There have been two small clinical trials of Prevagen, but neither supports the marketing claims.
“In the first, the study didn’t compare the Prevagen group (those taking the supplements) with a control group (those who took a placebo with only white flour in them),” Dr. Langbaum noted. “In the second, the study failed to show an improvement in the Prevagen group compared to those on a placebo.”
What are the risks of taking Prevagen?
Supplements don’t have to undergo the same rigorous review process as prescription drugs. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have raised concerns, and over the years, the company that makes Prevagen has been accused of selectively reporting data and misleading the public.
“Like all supplements, Prevagen does not have to be approved for safety or efficacy by the FDA and FTC before being sold,” Dr. Langbaum noted.
Many medical experts, scientists, researchers and the Alzheimer’s Association also caution that claims about memory-enhancing supplements are mostly based on very little science. Remember: If the claims sound too good to be true, they probably are.
It’s important to talk to your health care provider before taking any dietary supplements, as they can mess with other prescribed medications. Your provider can recommend proven ways to help you get your memory working as well as possible.
Boosting brain health: the real deal
Just like we do things to keep our bodies healthy, there are simple tactics you can do to keep your brain in top shape. Beyond the buzz of supplements, Dr. Langbaum shared everyday habits that can help maintain or boost your brain health:
- Diet matters: Eat a balanced, healthy diet of colorful fruits, veggies and whole grains. Your brain loves nutrients as much as you love your favorite comfort food.
- Exercise: Aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. It’s great for your body, brain and mental health.
- Socialize: Stay connected. Hang out with friends, chat with family or join a club. Being social is like a workout for your brain’s social skills.
- Sleep: Getting enough quality sleep can help improve your memory.
- Learn something new: Whether it’s a new language, a musical instrument or a dance move, learning new things keeps your brain sharp.
- Manage your health: Keep an eye on your blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol. “A healthy heart means a happy brain,” Dr. Langbaum said.
[Also read “5 Simple Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age”]
Memory and thinking issues can sometimes be symptoms of underlying medical conditions such as vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems or even more serious issues like Alzheimer’s disease. Stress, lifestyle choices and mental health may also play a role. Your provider can assess your overall health and look for any potential medical causes.
If you’re concerned about your brain health or memory, chat with your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist before popping a supplement.