Using Ginkgo to Treat Alzheimer's Disease

Another natural substance that may be helpful in treating Alzheimer's disease is ginkgo.A standardized extract from ginkgo leaves seems to significantly improve blood flow, especially in medium-size and small arteries. In elderly subjects, the extract has been shown to alleviate dizziness and loss of memory, probably by allowing more blood to get to the brain.

Thus, using ginkgo to treat Alzheimer's disease makes a lot of sense, especially if the disease is diagnosed early. Among the early symptoms that ginkgo may alleviate are deterioration of the short-term memory, depression, absent-mindedness, anxiety, dizziness, inability to concentrate, mental confusion, and tinnitus.

How Ginkgo Works

Ginkgo is among the most studied plant medicines in Europe and the United States. Ginkgo's benefits seem to derive from its ability to improve circulation in virtually every area of the body, especially the brain. Ginkgo opens up blood vessels and keeps them supple, thus helping to prevent circulatory problems and enhance the body's ability to nourish itself.

Ginkgo also helps to fight free radicals -- those highly reactive molecules that result from our body's use of oxygen. Researchers think free radicals probably play a role in degenerative diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's, and in the aging process itself. Antioxidants such as ginkgo scavenge free radicals, reacting with them and leaving harmless molecules in their place.

Ginkgo also has the ability to interfere with a bodily substance called platelet activation factor (PAF). Discovered in 1972, PAF is involved in a staggering number of biological processes, including asthma attacks, arterial blood flow, and formation of blood clots that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. By inhibiting PAF, ginkgo may keep us from developing many of the diseases that strike as we grow older.

The most important ginkgo studies relate to its use in preventing, treating, or influencing vascular diseases, brain function, impotency, inflammation, and asthma.

Medical Studies of Ginkgo

In October 1997, JAMA published results of a multicenter study indicating that ginkgo extract may be of "significant benefit" in treating dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease. The double-blind study (meaning neither researchers nor subjects knew who was getting the active substance and who was simply getting a sugar pill) was designed to investigate the effects of standardized ginkgo extract on 309 patients with mild to severe dementia associated either with Alzheimer's disease or a condition known as multi-infarct dementia (in which areas of impaired circulation result in tissue death in the brain).

For 52 weeks, patients were treated with either a placebo or 40 milligrams of ginkgo extract taken three times a day. At the end of the trial, patients were given standardized tests to measure cognitive impairment, social behavior, and general psychopathology. The researchers reported that 27 percent of patients who received 26 or more weeks of ginkgo treatment scored at least four points higher on the 70-point Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive Subscale (ADAS-Cog), compared with 14 percent who did as well in the placebo (sugar pill) group.

In assessments of daily living skills and social behavior, 37 percent of ginkgo patients showed improvement, compared with 23 percent of those who took placebos. The overall condition of 40 percent of placebo takers worsened during the study, compared with only 19 percent of those taking ginkgo.

Moreover, the researchers said, "Adverse events [side effects] associated with (ginkgo) were no different from those associated with the placebo."

JAMA termed the results "particularly promising" in light of the fact that no satisfactory treatment now exists for management of Alzheimer's.

The ginkgo used in the study was a concentrated leaf extract standardized to 24 percent ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6 percent terpene lactones, the same extract widely used in Europe for treatment of cognitive disorders. This extract is available in the United States under a variety of trade names (check labels).

Similarly encouraging were results of a ginkgo study published in the journal Phytomedicine. The double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study investigated the effects of ginkgo extract in 156 patients with Alzheimer's disease or multi-infarct dementia. After 24 weeks, 28 percent of patients who took ginkgo extract achieved consistently higher test scores, compared with only 10 percent in the placebo group.

In another study, 31 patients with mild-to-moderate memory impairment were given a standardized ginkgo extract and observed for six months. The extract, as in earlier tests, contained 24 percent flavonoid glycosides and 6 percent terpenes. At the end of the trial, researchers reported that ginkgo clearly had a "beneficial effect on mental efficiency" in the elderly Alzheimer's patients.

A study published in 2005 found that beta-amyloid levels fell in people who used ginkgo for more than two years. This is important because beta-amyloid, which is a type of protein, has been linked to progression of Alzheimer's disease.

One of the most famous ginkgo studies of aging-induced cerebral disorders was reported in 1986 by the French medical journal La Presse Medicale. Researchers developed a scale of 17 items to evaluate 166 geriatric patients in several centers. Markers included vivacity, short-term memory, disturbances in orientation, anxiety, depression, emotional stability, initiative, cooperation, sociability, personal care, ability to walk, appetite, vertigo (dizziness), fatigue, headache, sleep, and tinnitus. After taking ginkgo extract for three months, the subjects improved in every area, and they continued to improve over time.

A 1996 study in Germany focused on 216 patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms of Alzheimer's. The patients were divided into two groups. For one month, patients in the first group were treated daily with standardized ginkgo extract. Patients in the second group received a placebo. At the end of the trial, the subjects were tested for mental, behavioral, and motor skills. Those who had taken ginkgo showed great increases in mental alertness and improvement in mood. But little improvement was noted among patients in the placebo group.

And in a study of eight women, short-term memory and reaction time improved dramatically after they had taken ginkgo.

How Does Ginkgo Compare?

A 24-week study published in the European Journal of Neurology in 2006 found that ginkgo extract was just as effective as donepezil, and both beat placebo. The 76 Alzheimer's patients in this study had fewer adverse effects when taking ginkgo compared to donepezil. These promising results still need to be confirmed by other studies, but for now it seems ginkgo is a cheap, safe, effective treatment alternative.

Of course, you should never attempt to treat Alzheimer's or any serious disease on your own. If a loved one is suffering from Alzheimer's, discuss using ginkgo to treat Alzheimer's disease -- or some of the other home remedies discussed in this article -- with the patient's health-care provider.

He or she may decide to give ginkgo or another home remedy a try, because no current therapies are successful in truly alleviating Alzheimer's disease. Using the remedies in this article certainly won't hurt. In fact, they just might help.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.

Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.

Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.

Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.

ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:

Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.

David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.