The new approach to nootropics: Addressing demand for brain health supplements across three different generations of consumers

The demand for nootropics will continue to surge—but trying to formulate and market brain health supplements that will appeal across all these age groups doesn’t make sense in 2021. Supplement brands that take the time to understand each generational cohort’s particular challenges, needs, and life circumstances will make all the difference in terms of product success.

Nootropics aren’t new. While the term itself sounds like a trendy alternative health buzzword, 90% of Americans already consume nootropics daily (in the form of caffeine).1 But due to the increased pressures of our technology-driven society, the ongoing stress of the pandemic, and growing interest in natural and preventative health measures, dietary supplements that enhance cognitive performance are in higher demand than ever. Nootropics are having a moment—but I predict that moment will be long-lasting across all demographics. (A Grand View Research report agrees, estimating the global market for brain health supplements will increase from USD $7.21 billion in 2020 to USD $13.38 billion by 2028).2

You could argue that the reason for the popularity of nootropics is pretty simple: They promise to help with better focus, clearer thinking, increased productivity, and improved memory. Who doesn’t want a brain that works better? But a deeper dive into the particular motivations and needs of three generational cohorts shows that each age group’s interest in nootropics is prompted by specific concerns. Smart supplement makers are examining each group’s particular challenges, and speaking directly to those needs.

For seniors and Baby Boomers, maintaining brain function with age is paramount.

Senior vice president of research for AARP Alison Bryant said in 20193 that, “Staying mentally sharp is the number one concern for older adults.” Seniors and Baby Boomers are increasingly proactive about their desire to reduce the risk of age-related cognitive issues—in fact, a 2019 AARP survey4 showed a quarter of Americans between 50 and 73 already take supplements specifically designed to promote brain health.

Aging populations have specific needs that so-called “natural molecule5 nootropics can address. As we age, our bodies are less able to absorb vitamins like B12—and, according to the Cleveland Clinic6, B vitamins “may help prevent dementia and boost the production of neurotransmitters….Without a steady supply of this nutrient, which the body doesn’t store, we are at higher risk for cognitive decline.” No wonder that Stratview Research7 predicts “the demand for vitamin B complex is expected to increase in the next five years.”

Other nootropics that offer specific benefits to older adults: Fish oils, which contain a host of health benefits, have been shown in some studies8 to help with memory, mental processing speed, and cognitive health. Because increased cerebral blood flow may protect against cognitive impairments9, products that enhance circulation to the brain—CBD10mushrooms11, Ginkgo biloba12—also appeal strongly to this group.

The takeaway: For older Americans, nootropic supplements are all about neuroprotectivity.

Generation Xers need support around the overwhelm of full-time work and caretaking.

Gen X, an often-overlooked cohort, consists of roughly 65 million American adults aged 41 to 56. Gen Xers are known as ”the sandwich generation,”13 frequently shouldering the responsibilities of working full-time and raising children while also caring for senior family members. They were also the cohort hit hardest by pandemic-related layoffs14 during 2020 (which is likely part of why a recent study from Ohio State University15 found serious declines in Generation X health in the last year). With retirement a long way off, this pressured cohort needs their brains sharp in order to keep working, producing, and earning—but they’re also old enough that they’re increasingly willing to spend on preventive health.

As “the most stressed generation alive,”16 Gen Xers are prime candidates for nootropics that address the mental strain of chronic stress (which has been shown to impair cognitive function, attention, and memory)17. Cannabidiol’s (CBD) apparent anxiety-reducing properties18 definitely appeal to this cohort. Ingredients like L-theanine, ashwagandha, red sage, and even terpenes like limonene (which may help reduce stress response)19 all speak to this audience’s need for mental calm. For some Gen X women, brain fog and forgetfulness related to fluctuating hormone levels20 of perimenopause and menopause can be one of the more frustrating aspects of this life stage; thus, there’s major opportunity for nootropic innovations around managing the menopause transition.

The takeaway: For Gen Xers, reducing the effects of stress on the brain while also supporting calm, clear thinking and mental stamina are key.

Millennials want focus, as well as mental health support and ethically made products.

Despite being denigrated as fragile snowflakes, this generation (which makes up more than two-thirds of the American workforce) is highly educated, popularized microdosing for increased work productivity21, and basically invented hustle culture. They’re also part of a generational backlash from the years of trying to become “machines of self-optimization” which have resulted in widespread burnout22 among their age group. Nootropics that aid focus and support mental stamina appeal to this group—but millennials also want products that address the underlying cause of their mental fatigue. As one doctor noted23, “Millennials don’t want to throw medications at a problem….they just want to get to the root of the problem.” Natural molecule supplements that support brain function rather than masking problems appeal to this group: zinc, magnesium, turmeric, and B, C and D vitamins, for example, are all thought to support dopamine production24, which not only assists with brain function but may contribute to mood elevation and better energy levels25.

Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials are very open to alternative medicine23. They exercise more, read more health-related blogs, and seek more medical advice online than any other generation26. They take mental health seriously and are willing to spend27 on quality, effective products that contribute to their well-being. Their spending on supplements went way up28 during the peak of the pandemic, and they’re invested in preventative health. When formulating nootropics for this cohort, keep in mind that they care more about sustainability, ethically sourced ingredients, and the environment29 than any generation that preceded them. They research ingredients and study labels30 and seek out products that are good for their health, the local economy, and the planet.

The takeaway: Millennials want to be more productive—but not at the expense of their mental health. They want supplements that address the root cause of their issues, but also have high expectations for the ethics of brands they support.

People of all ages want better brains. They simply require different approaches.

The demand for nootropics will continue to surge—but trying to formulate and market brain health supplements that will appeal across all these age groups doesn’t make sense in 2021. Supplement brands that take the time to understand each generational cohort’s particular challenges, needs, and life circumstances will make all the difference in terms of product success.

Robert Johnson is the CEO of Custom Capsule Consultants, a California-based supplement manufacturer that offers full production services, end-to-end product development, custom formulations, and white-label and private-label products. Johnson has worked as a consultant, product developer, and consumer trend expert in the supplement space since 2008.

References

  1. Kuakini Health System website. “Caffeine: America’s Most Popular Drug.”
  2. Grand View Research report. “Brain Health Supplements Market Size Worth $13.38 Billion by 2028.” Posted January 2021.
  3. Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan. (2019, May 15). “Older adults expect to lose brain power, but most don’t ask doctors how to prevent dementia: Many in their 50s and early 60s buy supplements or do puzzles in hopes of protecting brain health, but may miss out on effective strategies.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2021.
  4. Mehegan L. “2019 AARP Brain Health and Dietary Supplements Survey.” AARP website. Posted June 2019. Revised August 2019.
  5. González-Fuentes J et al. “Neuroprotective natural molecules, from food to brain.” Frontiers in Neuroscience. Published online October 23, 2018.
  6. Cleveland Clinic website. “B Is for Brain Health.” Posted July 25, 2017.
  7. Stratview Research report. “B-Vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, Biotin, B6, B12 and Folic Acid) Market - Demand and Opportunity in Top 10 Global Markets, Segmentation by Application (Pharma, Cosmetics, Animal feed and Food and Beverage); Segmentation by End User (Home Users, Hospitals, Sports Enthusiasts, Others), By Formulations (Soft gels, Capsules, Lozenges, Syrup, Intranasal forms); Segmentation by Mode of Sale (Prescription and Over the counter), Segmentation by Demand (Due to Vitamin Deficiency, As Food supplement, any Other reason); Segmentation by region (North America, Central and South America, Europe, APAC, MENA and ROW).” 2021.
  8. Hanson A. “Fish Oil and Seafood for Brain Health: What’s the Evidence?Dimensions (Spring 2018): 12
  9. Joris PJ et al. “Cerebral blood flow measurements in adults: A review on the effects of dietary factors and exercise.” Nutrients. Published online April 25, 2018.
  10. University College London website. “Cannabidiol improves blood flow to brain’s hippocampus.” Posted August 9, 2020.
  11. Sabaratnam V et al. “Neuronal health – Can culinary and medicinal mushrooms help?Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, vol. 3, no. 1 (Jan-March 2013) 62-68
  12. Mashayekh A et al. “Effects of Ginkgo biloba on cerebral blood flow assessed by quantitative MR perfusion imaging: A pilot study.” Neuroradiology, vol. 53, no. 3 (March 2011): 185-191
  13. Mayer K. “Gen X Workers Experiencing Worrisome Mental Health Declines.” Human Resource Executive. Published April 21, 2021.
  14. Seyoum M. “‘Tragedy of Today’s Employment Landscape’: Gen X Workers Hit Hardest by Jobs Crisis Amid COVID-19.” USA Today. Published July 26, 2021. Updated July 27 2021.
  15. Grabmeier J. “Health Declining in Gen X and Gen Y, National Study Shows.Ohio State News. Published March 19, 2021.
  16. Perr T. “Gen X Is the ‘Most Stressed” Generation Alive but They’re Also the Best at Handling It.Upworthy. Published April 28, 2021.
  17. Bernstein R. “The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain.” Touro University Worldwide website. Published July 26, 2016.
  18. Blessing EM et al. “Cannabidiol as a potential treatment for anxiety disorders.Neurotherapeutics, vol. 12, no. 4 (October 2015): 825-836
  19. Anandakumar P et al. “D-limonene: A multifunctional compound with potent therapeutic effects.” Journal of Food Biochemistry (2021)
  20. Imaging Study Reveals Brain Changes During the Transition to Menopause.” Weill Cornell Medicine website. Published June 9, 2021.
  21. Kelly J. “Silicon Valley Is Micro-Dosing ‘Magic Mushrooms’ to Boost Their Careers.” Forbes. Published January 17, 2020.
  22. Petersen AH. “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” BuzzFeed News. Published January 5, 2019.
  23. Einisman K. “Going Natural: How Millennials Are Shaping Health Care’s Future.” Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Published June 23, 2021.
  24. Esposito L. “Dopamine Supplements to Boost Your Mood.” U.S. News & World Report. Published September 27, 2021.
  25. Reisdorf AG. “Meeting U.S. Millennials Halfway on Healthcare.” Abbott website. Published March 20, 2019.
  26. Asociación RUVID. (2013, January 10). “Dopamine regulates the motivation to act, study shows.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2021 from
  27. Dumont J. “Whole Foods Survey: Millennials Still Spend More for Quality.” Grocery Dive. Published September 10, 2019.
  28. How COVID-19 Is Boosting Millennial Interest in Vitamins.” JustFood. Published November 27, 2020.
  29. Darbonne N. “Millennials Are Going Green – Ethical Fashion Is the Future.” GenBiz. Published April 22, 2021.
  30. Sadani MD. “What to Sell Products to Millennials? Here’s What You Need to Do.” Entrepreneur. Published November 1, 2019.