Does DHEA Improve Memory?
My father-in-law takes DHEA along with a few other drugs, all under a doctor's care. He was having trouble remembering things and even being able to carry on a conversation. He says DHEA helps a lot, although he doesn't think it is enhancing his memory. What does DHEA do, exactly?
DHEA is a natural hormone produced by the adrenal glands, in the family of male sex hormones. Currently there is great medical interest in DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), as well as a push from the supplement industry to promote it as an anti-aging, anti-obesity, anti-cancer remedy. Smart-drug enthusiasts also think it can protect brain cells from the degenerative changes of old age. A lot of claims, but not a lot of conclusive science as of yet.
What we do know is that DHEA has a significant anabolic effect, which results in stronger bones and muscles and decreased body fat. It may protect health in a variety of ways. I've seen excellent results with DHEA in patients with autoimmune diseases like lupus. I also think it might help people with other diseases such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis who have become dependent on prednisone, since it may allow them to wean their bodies off that more dangerous hormone. DHEA is sold as a prescription drug and by several mail order pharmacies. Health-food stores sell DHEA precursors, but they are probably worthless. The extracts from wild yams will have no effect, either.
People who tout DHEA point out that we produce the most of it in our 20s, with production tapering off in our later years until we produce only about one-fifth as much. They suggest that supplemental DHEA beginning at age 40 or 50 could improve quality of life. But evidence for DHEA's benefits is inconclusive. There was one small, six-month study at the University of California-San Diego that reported improved energy and feelings of well-being.
I'm cautious about using any hormones on a regular basis without good reason and without medical supervision. We don't know what the downside of taking supplemental DHEA may be over time. Ray Sahelian, MD (author of DHEA: A Practical Guide; Be Happier Press, PO Box 12619, Marina del Rey, CA 90295), warns against taking high doses cavalierly and suggests consulting with a physician before trying DHEA, because it is a steroid that the body converts into potent estrogens and androgens. Side effects can include acne, facial-hair growth in women, deepening of the voice, and mood changes.
If your father-in-law's chief concern is his memory, I would suggest an herbal preparation made from the ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba). Researchers have recently begun to study the ability of extracts from ginkgo leaves to increase blood flow to the brain. You can buy capsules of nontoxic ginkgo in most health-food stores. Your father-in-law could try taking two capsules three times a day with meals for memory enhancement. He might not notice any beneficial effects until he had used ginkgo for six to eight weeks.