Everyone wants a simple fix for their memory and health. If only you could take a supplement that “fixes brain wiring so you dramatically improve your memory.” If only you could take a supplement that “restores lost neurotransmitters for a steel-trap memory.” Marketing is clever and plays to our fears with a mix of a few findings from tangentially related studies, “miracle memory molecules,” or “guarantees of your money back.” There are no short cuts. It takes time and effort to remain healthy. The latest Mayo Clinic Health Letter (March 2012) puts vitamin supplements in objective perspective without selling anything.

Their review of well conducted research concludes that many vitamins and minerals that we used to think prevented diseases may not help after all. Furthermore, there are small but consistent findings that vitamins and supplements may cause harm – even use of a multivitamin in those who are well nourished may slightly increase the risk of premature death. Before taking vitamins and minerals without consulting with your physician consider these findings.

Vitamin E – taking more than 400 IUs (maybe even as low as 150 IUs) may pose health risks including premature death. A large trial showed that vitamin E and selenium did not reduce the risk of prostate cancer as many had believed.

Vitamin A – may increase the risk of hip fracture in postmenopausal women. High doses of vitamin A are potentially toxic.

Folic acid (vitamin B-9) – supplementation of folic acid may increase the risk of premature death.

Vitamin B-6 – doses of greater than 100 mgs can cause nerve damage.

Vitamin B-3 (niacin) – high doses can lower cholesterol but may also damage the liver.

Iron – remember the Geritol commercials? Iron deficiency is rare.

You get the point. Vitamins and supplements need to be given after consultation and evaluation by your physician. He or she can advise based on your needs (tested objectively) and inform you which supplements to take and in what dose. Don’t rely on advertising or marketing claims. For example, up to 15% of older adults may be deficient in vitamin B-12 which creates problems such pernicious anemia and memory loss. Finding out if you need supplementation is simple. Your physician can order a blood test.

In sum, don’t prescribe for yourself. When it comes to vitamins and supplements there are risks. Take supplements only after consultation and evaluation. More is not better. Many vitamins and supplements are needed within a narrow range of concentration and both too little and too much can be harmful. The best current advice for those who want to focus on wellness is to eat a healthy diet such as a Mediterranean diet heavy with fruits, vegetables, and fish. Additionally, exercise consistently and be social. In the long run your body will take care of its needs if you follow this plan.