Expert says distinction needs to be made between short- and long-term cognitive benefits

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

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Cognitive decline is a key concern for older consumers and drives product innovation in the healthy aging space. But marketers should take care to delineate between short-term and systemic approaches, an expert says.

Mark Miller, PhD, is the chief innovation officer for a private equity group that is delving into the contract manufacturing space within the dietary supplement industry. The effort now goes under the name of INW Manufacturing.

 For three decades, he was an elite biomedical researcher & medical school professor. Driven by broad curiosity and a remarkable ability to find new ways of understanding & managing health and disease, he has made major contributions to inflammation, oxidative stress, cardiovascular health, perinatal development, infant nutrition, gastroenterology, arthritis, cancer, nutrient-microbiome interactions, itch, nausea and traditional medicines centered on natural products.

Miller said that within the healthy aging sphere, products that support cognitive health tread carefully around the margins of disease claims. After all, the key concern for many consumers as they enter their 60s and beyond is whether they will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Shadow cast by Alzheimer’s

 Looking at the prevalence of Alzheimer’s, which is characterized by a progressive loss of memory, a steep decline in cognitive function and attendant changes in mood and behavior, presents a mixed picture.  According to the Population Reference Bureau, the share of older adults suffering from the condition dropped 24% in the 2000-2012 time frame​. Yet more people are dying form the disease​, primarily because more people are living longer, and the risk of the condition rises with age. And, from a demographic standpoint, because the share of the population aged 60 or older will grow for at least some decades to come, there will be an absolute rise in the number of people contending with the condition.

Miller said that when product developers are looking at ingredients, and marketers are crafting claims, it’s important to understand what benefits the product really provides.

Short term vs. long term

Many of the so-called nootropic ingredients on the market tend to provide ephemeral benefits, Miller said.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; many important product categories, such as multivitamins, might be considered as the body’s ‘consumables,’ necessary for proper metabolic functioning.

A number of dietary ingredients have been linked with better cognitive functioning, Miller said.  Among these are Bacopa monnieri, Ginkgo biloba, Panax ginseng​ and Rhodiola rosea​. Miller said all of these ingredients exert their cognitive effects by altering the production and functioning of neurotransmitters in one way or another. That can be a good thing, but shouldn’t be confused with getting at the root of the problem, he said.

“There is a range of products that have traditionally focused on replacing neurotransmitters that get used up (​or that might not be produced in sufficient quantity),” ​Miller told NutraIngredients-USA.

“That is fairly short term stuff because there is a constant turnover in those neurotransmitters. People might get a blip in their cognitive functioning from addressing the problem in this way.  That is all fine and good,”​ he said.

“But that is a different time scale from cognitive decline that goes over a period of years. Are there solutions to the long term decline? I think there are, but you need to have elements that address it upstream,” ​Miller said.

Symptom, or cause?

As an illustration, Miller brought up a recent drug trial that investigated the effect of a pharmaceutical ingredient on the development of amyloid plaques in the brain. These abnormal proteins are observed in large quantities in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers, and are thought to ‘gum up’ nerve signaling, contributing to the observed cognitive deficits. But are they the cause of the disease? Or just one of its side effects?

“They did the trial, and the drug worked. There were fewer plaques in the brain.  But that had no effect on the cognitive outcomes for these patients,” ​Miller said.

Both Merck and Pfizer have ended research on Alzheimer’s drug candidates​.  In that grim picture, what’s to be done?

Miller said in his view a common thread among Alzheimer’s sufferers is chronic inflammation.  There are a number of dietary ingredients with a role to play here in quelling systemic inflammation within the body, but many fewer that can cross the blood/brain barrier.  To do so, you need something that is lipid soluble and small, he said.

Carotenoid candidate

Among the best candidates here is astaxanthin, Miller said.  The ingredient has been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits, and has also been shown to cross the blood brain barrier as do some other carotenoids. 

“There is decent evidence with astaxanthin but there needs to be more research,”​ Miller said.

“The important thing with chronic inflammation is that word, ‘chronic.’ That only happens when you have a disregulation of which genes are turned on and which are turned off,”​ he said.

Health Aging Online Event

Miller will be one of the participants in a panel discussion that will be part of NutraIngredients-USA’s Health Aging Online Event, scheduled for May 29.  The event will also feature a market overview session presented by Diane Ray of the Natural Marketing Institute and will include session presented by key suppliers in the space.  Fro more information and to register, click here​. 

Related topics: Suppliers, Cognitive function

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