AARP study on brain health attitudes points to opportunity for cognitive support ingredients, experts say

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

AARP study on brain health attitudes points to opportunity for cognitive support ingredients, experts say

Related tags Brain health Nutrition Medicine Cognition

A recent study released by the AARP showed that brain health is becoming an increasing concern, and that more Americans are aware of the potential benefit that playing brain games and doing puzzles may have in combating cognitive decline. The results could spell an opportunity for ingredients that have evidence of their effects in this realm, experts say.

The AARP study’s goal was to better understand people’s attitudes toward healthy living and their attitudes and behaviors about brain health and what they though about brain training specifically.  The data came from 1,200 interview conducted in August of 2014, with 500 respondents fitting in the 34-50 age group, 500 in the 50-68 group and 200 in the 68-74 age range. Of the total, 63% of the respondents were female.

Key findings

Among the key findings​ were these:

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important to all consumers (99% find it at least somewhat important). Brain health is the second most important component in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, after heart health (37% find brain health most important while 51% find heart health most important).
  • While adequate rest (86%), reduced stress (86%), proper nutrition (84%), and physical exercise (75%) are seen as the most important components to healthy living, consumers also engage in puzzles and games online (48%) and in newspapers, books, and magazines (37%). 
  • Brain training is a relatively well-known concept among consumers (52% are aware of brain training). Working on puzzles (70%), solving word problems (67%), math problems (59%), and playing memorization games (55%) are all popular cognitive exercises consumers have engaged to improve or maintain brain health. There is also interest in engaging in these activities in the future (43%, 44%, 46%, and 52% would consider these activities in the future, respectively).
  • Consumers are likely to engage in brain training to support living a more enjoyable, self-managed life (91%). Catastrophic events affecting the brain, inability to manage simple tasks, worsening memory, and witnessing a loved one suffer from a decline in brain health are primary motivators to participate in activities to maintain or improve brain health (76%, 74%, 74%, and 73%, respectively).
  • Consumers primarily look to their doctor and friends or family to learn more about brain health (70% and 51%, respectively). When researching brain health, consumers prefer sources supported by doctors (72%) and professionals (69%) that are current and up-to-date with supporting statistical data (57%).

Research supported in other studies

The AARP study did not delve into the topic of supplementation specifically. But Karen Todd, RD, senior director of global brand marketing for ingredient supplier Kyowa Hakko, said it mirrors research the company itself has done to support its Cognizin-brand citicoline ingredient.

“What I found interesting is that when they were looking at the younger demographic, focus and attention was important but for the older demographic it was more about memory and keeping the thing intact,”​ Todd told NutraIngredients-USA.

Todd said that while Kyowa Hakko’s research does not take into account the brain games mentioned in the study, such as Lumosity or Mind Games, the company does have data relating to standardized cognitive tests which are used by the game companies as part of their baseline data gathering. That practice is somewhat controversial among brain researchers, she said, as the accuracy of these tests is based in part on participants being in the dark about how they are supposed to work. Familiarity allows test takers to game the system to some degree and is harder to control for in the results, and experts in the field believe those tools should be reserved for practitioners, she said.

“We do have data showing verbal learning scores improved with Cognizin.  We have data on an interference type test in which a color panel is flashed with the name of a different color below it and participants are asked to name the color.  And we have data on a virtual water maze test, in which participants were asked to remember cues in a room, like the location of a door or a window,”​ she said.

“We are definitely seeing the space grow.  And we have seen that people are not just putting a five garden-variety ingredients that might have some connection to cognitive health into products now.  They are really thinking about them are are going for ingredients that have specific evidence backing,” ​Todd said.

Evidence takes time to percolate

Tom Shea, PhD, is a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who helped develop a patented formulation marketed by Sevo Nutraceuticals as Perceptiv. Unlike most other multiple-ingredient products, the company has a significant amount of data on the performance of the specific formulation, he said.  For him, the results of the AARP study are significant more for what it didn’t say.

“The brain health perceptions in the study are very telling. 99% of the respondents think a healthy lifestyle is important.  But that drops dramatically when you talk about brain health versus cardiovascular health (in the study 37% found brain health most important while 51% found heart health most important).  It has only recently been demonstrated conclusively that nutrition can help brain health,”​ Shea said.

Shea said that research showing the cognitive health benefits of things like the ingredients in Perceptiv (a blend of N-acetyl L-cysteine, acetyl L-carnitine, SAMe, folic acid and vitamins E and B12) or citicoline can take years to start to resonate with doctors and other practitioners, whom the AARP study found were the most trusted source for advice about brain health.

“The data can appear to be very strong in scientific journals, but that is not where the public looks. They look to their doctors and friends, and a medical doctor is busy in the trenches saving lives.  It has to be around for a long time before it becomes something that is generally accepted,”​ he said.

Omega-3 associations

One ingredient class that has been around for a long time and plays in both the cognitive health and cardiovascular health spaces is omega-3s. The data for these ingredients is not as specific as with Cognizin or Perceptiv, but is nevertheless strongly suggestive, said William Harris, PhD, a researcher with the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota.

“Certainly there is a relationship between omega-3s levels and brain health. We know this from work in the Framingham Study. If we look at people in that study that were in the highest omega-3 quartile, those people were about 40% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared with the other three quartiles,” Harris​ said.

“If we look at the offspring of people in the Framingham Study, we find those from the highest omega-3 quartile performed better on standard cognitive tests and higher brain volume.  And another study in post menopausal women found that a higher omega-3 index was associated with a bigger hippocampus, the portion of the brain associated with memory.

To read the full AARP study, click here​.

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