Careful with Pseudoscience

Ask the DOC

The U.S. population is aging, and with it is an increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, which lacks effective approaches for prevention or a cure. Many people are concerned about their loved ones or they themselves developing dementia, and so they often independently seek out information and material about brain health interventions. Unfortunately, not all sources contain verified, high-quality medical information. As anyone who has accessed the internet for information knows, not all sites contain truthful or accurate information. In the landscape of limited treatments for dementia, wide access to information has brought about a troubling rise in what some experts have described as “pseudomedicine.” This term refers to supplements and medical interventions that exist within the law and are promoted as scientifically supported treatments, but lack credible efficacy data.

Practitioners of pseudomedicine often appeal to health concerns, promote individual anecdotal testimony as proven fact, advocate for unproven therapies, and achieve financial gain. As it relates to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, the most common example of pseudomedicine is the promotion of dietary supplements to improve cognition and brain health. This $3.2 billion industry promotes brain health benefits via high-penetration consumer advertising through print media, TV, radio, and the internet. Despite the fact that there is no known dietary supplement that prevents cognitive decline or dementia, these supplements are advertised as such and appear to gain legitimacy when sold by major U.S. retailers. Many consumers are unaware that dietary supplements are not subject to FDA testing for efficacy or safety. Indeed, some supplements may cause harm—Vitamin E, for example, which if taken in high doses, may cause brain hemorrhage and/or death.

The Alzheimer’s Association highlights these concerns and notes that many of these supplements are promoted by testimony rather than scientific research. One researcher, referring to scientific integrity, or a lack thereof, coined the term, “cargo cult science,” to refer to these supplements and other methods of “prevention and treatment.” Examples of cargo cult science include treatments for unsubstantiated causes of neurodegenerative diseases such as metal toxicity, mold exposure, and infectious diseases including Lyme disease. These causes and treatments are often promoted by licensed medical professionals. These “professionals” offer treatments for dementia, usually not covered by medical insurance, including intravenous nutrition, personalized detoxification, chelation therapy, antibiotics, or stem cell therapy. These interventions lack a known mechanism for treating dementia and are costly, unregulated, and potentially harmful.

Recently, other protocols to reverse cognitive decline have been promoted, often by medical professionals with legitimate credentials. These protocols include cognitive training, exercise, a heart-healthy diet, and supplements. While seemingly supported by medical trials and research, a closer inspection of the data reveals poor-quality studies and sloppy research. An argument may be made that these interventions are not harmful and offer hope to those facing an incurable disease. However, these interventions are not ethically, medically, or financially benign for patients and families.

If you or a family member are facing a diagnosis of dementia, it is important to discuss any and all treatments with your family practitioner or neurologist, who may guide you through the various treatment options. Remember that any legitimate treatment for a common disease would already be in widespread use and would be covered by health insurance if it were truly effective.

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