As the baby-boomers ripen into late middle-age, a growing contingent seek the grail of "successful aging," and highest of their priorities is keeping their minds spry and sharp throughout old age. The youngsters among us, too, are eager for a brain-boost to stay ahead in a competitive world.
In these pursuits, we're all eager to participate in the "smart food revolution," a new science-based trend toward using what we eat to fight disease, to slow aging and even to improve our minds.
With so much at stake, many of us are drawn to the seductive possibilities of "brain-power" supplements, whose promises of improved memory, motor skills and mental acuity come conveniently packaged in a pill. Supplement manufacturers have kept us in no short supply, and it's hard to turn on the TV or radio and not find ads for one or another "miracle brain formula."
But the bold claims of cable infomercials are nowhere heard in the halls of science. In the battle for an ageless brain, scientists insist, you shouldn't seek silver bullets in a bottle. Instead, let nature bring its whole arsenal of brain-promoting powers to bear by eating nutritious whole foods.
Two scientists at the forefront of whole foods research, James Joseph and Barbara Shukitt-Hale, both of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center in Boston, guide us through the reasons:
Synergy. Many of the most popular supplements, including quercetin, alpha-lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q-10, are antioxidants, molecules that mop up cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Also possessed of powerful anti-inflammatory effects, antioxidants are important for keeping brain cells healthy and youthful. Although the benefits of antioxidants in foods are well known, their efficacy in supplement form is dubious. What supplements lack is synergy. Antioxidants need to work in concert with other molecules to achieve their beneficial effects. Even "brain formulas" that claim their many ingredients work synergistically can't compete with the wealth of antioxidants in whole foods. Blueberries, for example, by virtue of plant pigments called anthocyanins, have 2400 times the antioxidant power of vitamin E (itself a powerful antioxidant). "There's 40 anthocyanins and maybe 300 other compounds in blueberries—people don't even know what they are yet—and they're all working together," says Joseph. "A supplement can't even hope to compete."
Dosage. There are no well-established guidelines for how much of any supplement you should take. "The problem," says Joseph, "is that you don't know how much you need. If you take six of those pills a day, is that equivalent to a cup of blueberries? One good thing about whole foods is you can't really OD on them." In high doses, some antioxidants can actually be harmful, turning, in fact, into pro-oxidants. Without knowledge of proper dosing, you can't know if you're helping or hurting.
Good Habits. Loading up on supplements can lure you into the trap of thinking you're eating well. But you may not be getting the right balance of nutrients, and you're encouraging yourself to seek quick fixes for your dietary concerns. "A lot of people who take these different kinds of pills think, 'Well, if I do that then I can eat a lousy diet,'" says Dr. Joseph. "But eating whole foods gets you into the mindset and lifestyle of eating healthy."
Regulation. The FDA doesn't regulate the supplement industry. Supplement manufacturers need not disclose the details of their preparations, nor demonstrate the effectiveness, or even safety, of their product. They may tout compounds that have positive effects in a test tube, but no proven effects in the body
Price. One-month supplies of the most common "brain-booster" formulas cost at least $50/month. It's too much to pay for empty promises and doubtful outcomes.
Joseph and Shukitt-Hale recommend several simple steps to get the brainpower you need from food.