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University teases sweet solution to older adults’ memory problems


0 Star

Sugar improves memory in over-60s, helping them work smarter

Our Review Summary

This news release highlights findings of a small, short-term trial that suggests glucose (a form of sugar) enhances performance on memory tests in older adults.

The release touts benefits in performance, motivation, and mood while taking these tests, but fails to include any data. Nor does it mention how these outcomes were defined or measured.

Two other inclusions would have helped this news release considerably. First, make it clear to the readers that this study looked at the short-term impact of consuming sugar on memory tests in a lab. It couldn’t tell us whether sugar improves participants’ functioning in their everyday lives.

Second, make at least some mention of the potential harms of consuming too much sugar.


Why This Matters

With a headline and subheading that promise older adults improvements in memory, performance, and mood you’d better back your claims with data. You also owe it to your readers to make it very clear what the limitations of the study at hand are.

Because, at the very least, you are going to get the attention of the tens of millions of Americans (or their caregivers) suffering with dementia and depression, and run the very real risk that they will now see sugar as a benign panacea when it likely has more chance to cause harm than be helpful.


Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The intervention used in this research was 25 grams of glucose (aka dextrose) dissolved in water.

Glucose is a major source of energy, in particular, for our brain. Most of the glucose found in our blood comes from the breakdown of carbohydrates in our diet, but if you wanted to buy pure glucose, 50 tablets would cost you about $4.

Not including the cost in the news release seems reasonable.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The news release states that sugar has these benefits in older people:

  • “improves memory and performance
  • “makes them more motivated
  • “can help [them] try harder
  • “makes [them] feel happier during a task”

No data are provided to support these touted benefits.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The potential harms of glucose supplementation are not mentioned in the news release.

Of note, 25 grams of processed sugar (which is sucrose, a disaccharide made up of glucose + fructose) is about 6 teaspoons, and is actually the maximum daily amount recommended for women by the American Heart Association.

Given that some people may take the headline as a shortcut to better memory (or help them “work smarter”) it would have been prudent to warn readers that excessive sugar intake can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and related bad health outcomes.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The news release doesn’t provide any data.

Nor does it mention how memory, performance, motivation, or mood were measured.

It doesn’t even mention the sample size, which was relatively small: 53 young adults (ages 18-27) and 58 older adults (ages 65-82), with each group randomized to receive either glucose or placebo.

The only cautionary note proffered in the release is this:

More research is needed to disentangle these factors in order to fully understand how energy availability affects cognitive engagement, and to develop clear dietary guidelines for older adults.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Not Applicable

There is no overt disease-mongering here, but the wording used in this news release seems to imply that older adults need to improve their memory, performance, mood, and work smarter.

The release would’ve been improved with some background as to the normal declines in cognitive function that occur with aging and the impact they may have on older adults.

We’ll rate this not applicable, since the release didn’t really provide enough context to be considered satisfactory.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Funding sources are not mentioned.

The journal publishing this research — Psychology and Aging — gives the major source of funding as a scholarship for the lead author, a PhD candidate.

Neither the journal article nor the release provide information about potential conflicts of interest for the authors.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

There is a vast range of scholarship addressing interventions to improve memory, motivation, and task engagement and performance. Most of it is behavioral, some of it pharmaceutical or dietary, but suffice to say, none of these alternatives were mentioned.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

Not really applicable here since glucose is ubiquitous in most diets, and also widely available as a supplement.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The role of various sugars on cognitive abilities and mood has been studied for decades; ironically, much of this research showing a negative impact on these abilities. This context was not provided in the news release.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

There is too much vague language in this news release, starting with a headline that says sugar helps older adults “work smarter.”

What does that even mean?

And what does it mean to say that participants “try harder” and are “happier” after consuming sugar?

The news release needed to define some of these terms in order to meet our standard.

Total Score: 0 of 7 Satisfactory


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