5/5/09 – Cognitive and Brain Experts Urge Consumer Caution on Memory Fitness Products

Tips for navigating the marketplace of memory aids


CONTACT: Gayle Osterberg, 202-548-0133

May 5, 2009

STANFORD, CA — The Stanford Center on Longevity today on behalf of 30 of the world’s finest cognitive and brain scientists released a statement providing public guidance on products claiming to improve mental fitness and the science behind them. (DOWNLOAD STATEMENT)

A gathering of the world’s top cognitive scientists first convened in April 2008 for the “Expert Consensus on Brain Health” summit sponsored by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The goal was to develop a consensus statement for the public regarding the science behind products claiming to defend against memory loss.

The statement has been under development during the past year and is readied just as public attention will be heightened on the issue of mental health with the broadcast of a new documentary series on HBO focusing on Alzheimer’s disease.

“Fear of memory loss, mental impairment and Alzheimer’s disease lead many consumers to search for products – from supplements to software – that claim to ward off such ailments,” Carstensen said. “Such products are becoming more prolific, but this burgeoning industry is completely unregulated and the claims can range from reasonable though untested, to blatantly false. It is important for consumers to proceed with caution before buying into many of these product claims. There is no magic bullet solution for cognitive decline.”

The Summit’s statement points out that “it would be wrong to conclude that nothing can be done to improve mental fitness.” But goes on to “strongly encourage research that compares the efficacy and the cost-effectiveness of different approaches to maintaining cognitive fitness.”


• There is reason for optimism. Cognitive performance in many older adults appears to be improving over historical time. For example, a recent study with a national U.S. sample, found that older people today show less cognitive impairment than earlier cohorts. The fact that so many people do perform well in old age and can learn new skills also shows that positive outcomes are possible. Researchers are attempting to identify factors that contribute to both low and high performance.

Although based on plausible biochemical reasoning, to date, clinical research has produced no evidence that dietary supplements such as Gingko biloba enhance cognitive performance or reduce the rate of cognitive loss. Few dietary supplements have been subjected to large randomized controlled trials that have been published in leading journals. We encourage more investigation into potential effects of dietary supplements.

Software-based cognitive training and brain games have been shown to improve users’ performance on trained tasks. The important caveat is that very few training programs have shown evidence that such gains translate into improved performance in the complex realm of everyday life. A program might train you to memorize lists of words, for example, but this particular skill is not likely to help you remember where you left your car keys or the time of an upcoming appointment. We strongly support research on software based training and encourage interested people to participate in clinical trials investigating its potential.

Consumers should look for products that can substantiate their claims with evidence from research. A study conducted and reported by a company that has not been independently verified has limited value; consumers should look for further studies that have been published in peer reviewed journals. This means that the study design and results have been reviewed by multiple experts. If the study also has been conducted by independent researchers, has been replicated at multiple sites and has been funded by independent sources, these factors add to the credence of the study results. We encourage more independent research on potentially promising intervention techniques and on existing products on the market.

Be leery of anyone who claims to cure or prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia or pre-dementia. Any such products would need FDA approval to properly make such claims, and no currently available products have obtained approval. There is no evidence that software products on the market or any other cognitive or social interventions available today can delay or prevent disease. On the other hand, taking good care of your health, especially blood pressure and blood sugar, can aid cognitive performance.

Understand that there is a difference between short-term improvements and changes in long-term trajectories. If your goal is to improve your chances of remembering peoples’ names at an upcoming party, there are many proven ways to do this. However, no intervention to date has shown that once undertaken it can reduce the rate of cognitive decline over several years or decades.

Learning stimulates the brain and contributes to one’s general sense of competence. However, there is no evidence that any particular formal training or practice regime is required. Before settling on a particular method and investing time and sometimes money in a particular product, consumers need to consider hidden costs beyond dollars and cents: every hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren. Other avenues for cognitive enhancement, such as participating in your community and exploring your passions may also stimulate your mind while producing socially meaningful outcomes.

Physical exercise is not only a low-cost and effective way to improve your health but also an important key to improving brain fitness. Scientists have found that regular aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and helps to support formation of new neural and vascular connections. Physical exercise has been shown to improve attention, reasoning and components of memory. We view exercise as a promising approach to cognitive improvement and endorse continuing independent research in that area.


The Stanford Center on Longevity is transforming the culture of human aging using science and technology. In less than one century, life expectancy increased by an average of 30 years in developed regions of the world. Combined with a reduction in fertility rates across the same period, the changes in age distribution now under way in the population – both nationally and internationally – are dramatic and unprecedented. Added years can be a gift or a burden to humanity depending upon how they are used. The aim of the Center is to use increased life expectancy to bring about profound advances in the quality of life from early childhood to old age.

For more information, please visit http:longevity.stanford.edu