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Unlisted ingredients

Man studying drugs
Supplements marketed as cognitive enhancers may contain dangerous ingredients not listed on their labels. (Source: Adobe Stock)

Dozens of supplements that claim to improve older adults’ mental focus and memory are currently available online and over the counter. Sometimes called nootropics, “smart” drugs or cognitive enhancers, these popular supplements are marketed as safe – and millions of older adults buy them due to their promise of a clearer, more nimble mind.

But many of these supplements contain more ingredients than are listed on their labels. This includes unapproved pharmaceu- tical drugs in potentially dangerous combina- tions and doses, according to a new study.

After searching major databases, researchers identified 10 supplements containing drugs similar to piracetam, a drug found in supplements sold in several European countries but currently prohibited in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In the 10 supplements they examined, five unapproved drugs were detected.

All 10 of the supplements they analyzed contained omberacetam, which is prescribed in Russia for traumatic brain injury and mood disorders. While a typical dose of this drug would be 10 milligrams (mg), recommended doses for some of the supplements contained as much as 40 mg, four times that amount.

Other unapproved drugs found in the samples included aniracetam, vinpocetine, phenibut and picamilon. The FDA has issued a warning that vinpocetine should not be consumed by women of childbearing age; and while all of the risks of these drugs are not known, their side effects can include increased or decreased blood pressure, agitation, sedation and increased risk of hospitalization, the researchers said.

Some supplements they examined con- tained more than one of these unapproved drugs, while one of the products contained four. The team also found that for those products listing quantities of the drugs on their labels, a majority were inaccurate. “Over-the-counter cognitive supplements are popular because they promise a sharper mind, but they are not as closely regulated as pharmaceutical drugs … Use of these supplements poses potentially serious health risks,” said study author Pieter A. Cohen, M.D., of Harvard Medical School. “The effects of consuming untested combinations of unapproved drugs at unpredictable dosages are simply unknown, and people taking these supplements should be warned.”

Cohen also said the supplements could be especially risky when they are used along with other prescription drugs without asking a doctor’s advice first.

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