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Can anti-aging smart drugs boost your brainpower?

Supplements and prescription drugs are being touted as shortcuts to better memory and intelligence. Here's the truth.

Published: June 2015
Photo: Sam Kaplan

Age may bring wisdom, but we all want to feel youthful in mind and body. Our quest to keep age-related physical and cognitive changes at bay— has created a huge anti-aging industry—reportedly worth about $292 billion worldwide this year—one that includes drugs to boost cognition.

Although the prospect of slowing the clock is tantalizing, evidence suggests that there’s no anti-aging magic bullet yet. And according to our experts, some strategies are not only ineffective but also hazardous.

“Going to an anti-aging clinic might accelerate aging,” says Thomas T. Perls, M.D., director of the New England Centenarian Study and a professor at Boston University and the Boston Medical Center. Here's the lowdown on what some refer to as "smart" drugs.

‘Smart Drugs’

Proponents say that these drugs—some of them prescription-only, others sold over the counter or online­—can improve memory, focus, and attention. One group of “smart drugs,” collectively called nootropics, includes supplements containing such ingredients as caffeine, fish oil, herbals, and piracetam, which isn’t ­approved in the U.S. but is prescribed in the United Kingdom for movement disorders. The other main group of smart drugs includes the ADHD prescription medications methylphenidate (Ritalin and generic), and amphetamine and dexamphetamine (Adderall and generic); narcolepsy and sleep-apnea drug modafinil (Provigil and generic); and Alzheimer’s drug donepezil (Aricept and generic).

Bottom line: There’s limited evidence that nootropics improve cognition. And some may cause side effects or interact with medicine you’re already taking. In addition, what’s on a container’s label might not reflect what’s inside unless the supplement has been verified by a group such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia. “There can be tremendous variability among manufacturers,” says Gary W. Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center.

It’s legal for doctors to prescribe smart drugs for off-label use (one not approved by the Food and Drug Administration). But they don’t help enhance cognition in everyone and might worsen it in some, according to the American Academy of Neurology. And there are no long-term studies on how those drugs may affect healthy people, says Orly Avitzur, M.D., a neurologist and medical adviser to Consumer Reports.

—Catherine Winters

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.



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