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Marketers exploit the aged with unproven brain-health claims


SHRINK WRAP: Lacking any scientific proof, a vast number of supplements claim they can reverse the cerebral atrophy that comes with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

A FEW YEARS ago, motivated by a family history of dementia, Bea Pena-Reames began using a dietary supplement that promised improved memory and brain health. It was advertised as safe and effective—but that was not her experience. “I’m typically a joyful person, but I couldn’t shake this depression and intense sense of sadness,” says Pena-Reames, a former high school biology teacher who lives in north Texas. “I was getting angry at the drop of a hat.”

Loosely regulated dietary supplements of the sort Pena-Reames took have found a rich vein of acceptance among middle-age and older Americans increasingly worried about losing their mental acuity. Thanks to healthier lifestyles and advances in treatment for some cancers, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, people are living longer. But some also are living long enough to face the scourge of brain-wasting diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and they’re looking for help.

That often-desperate pursuit of remedies has created a lucrative marketing opportunity. Products aimed at consumers worried about brain health and memory have contributed to a more than tenfold increase in the number of supplements marketed in the U.S. over the past two decades. It’s not known exactly how much of that increase is due to health and memory supplements, but retailers on the internet and at the mall are brimming with supposed brain-boosting options.

Much of that growth has been fueled by marketing that may be exploiting the fears of some of society’s most vulnerable people. The Government Accountability Office is investigating the marketing of brain and memory supplements and the problems regulators face in reining in misleading claims. The GAO examination was requested by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), formerly the ranking minority member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging. She has called out retailers for deceptive promotions of memory and brain supplements, and sees regulatory oversight of the supplement industry as “alarmingly inadequate.”

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