Honey memory boost too sweet to be true?

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A daily spoonful of Malaysian honey may boost postmenopausal women’s memory, researchers say in a new report that aims to provide an “alternative therapy” for hormone-related intellectual decline.

In the study, 102 healthy women were randomly assigned to eat 20 grams of honey a day, take hormone-replacement therapy containing estrogen and progesterone or do nothing.

After four months, those who took honey or hormone pills recalled about one extra word out of 15 presented on a short-term memory test.

“The immediate memory improvement in the honey group is probably best explained by improvement in concentration and overall well-being after honey supplement,” Dr. Zahiruddin Othman and colleagues from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Kubang Kerian write in the journal Menopause.

The new work is part of a slew of studies from the researchers, who say the honey -- from the tropical tualang tree -- has beneficial effects on anything from scars, to bones, to female reproductive organs and even cancer cells.

And now memory has been added to the list. But women shouldn’t get excited just yet, warn U.S. experts, who shot down the new results.

“This is not a scientifically rigorous study,” said Dr. Natalie L. Rasgon of the Stanford School of Medicine, who has led government-funded studies on estrogen and cognitive decline in women.

One criticism, she told Reuters Health, is that the study was small and didn’t last long. What’s more, she worried that any effect of honey might simply be a question of increasing blood sugar levels.

“Assuming potential efficacy of the honey, there is no preexisting knowledge of a mechanism,” Rasgon said. “I can’t understand how they can compare honey to estrogen. Honey is not even a supplement.”

She also explained that estrogen and progesterone have very different effects on the brain, and scientists are still divided on the question of how hormones influence memory.

For example, one large government study known as the Women’s Health Initiative found that taking estrogen and progesterone actually increased dementia rates in women over 65.

That study also showed hormone replacement therapy carries other health risks, such as blood clots and breast and colon cancer.

Another Stanford researcher, Dr. Victor Henderson, added that the Malaysian study wasn’t blinded, meaning that both participants and researchers knew what treatment each woman got.

That opens the results to any bias the investigators might harbor about the effects of honey as well as the powerful placebo effect that could in principle account for the treatment effects.

Both Rasgon and Henderson have received funding or consulting fees from drugmakers selling hormone-replacement therapy. Yet they said that for most menopausal women, real mental decline isn’t a problem.

“Memory changes as people get older and for women it’s difficult to separate the effects of aging from the effects of menopause,” said Henderson. “The current evidence is that on average, most women don’t need to worry very much about cognition during the years around menopause.”

He said that when tested objectively, perceived memory problems often aren’t real. If women continue to be concerned, however, Henderson said they should find out whether their trouble could be linked to depression, sleep problems or medication use.

While the jury is still out on how estrogen affects memory -- the hormone is not approved to prevent cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s -- both researchers said more and more research suggests exercise may help.

“There is actually emerging evidence that exercise does have effects on memory,” Henderson told Reuters Health.

On the other hand, downing a lot of tualang honey -- which is hard to find and costs as much as $40 on the Internet -- might not be a great idea for all aging women.

“Twenty grams of honey provides about 60 calories from sugar, and diabetics would need to consider this in their diet,” Henderson warned.

As for Rasgon, she won’t be putting honey in her tea tonight.

“It’s too sweet for me,” she said.

SOURCE: Menopause, online September 15, 2011.