Can Gingko Prevent Alzheimer's?

As we and our loved ones get older, a lot of new health considerations arrive. One of the major issues concerning senior citizens’ health today is dementia. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, for which there is no known cure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alzheimer’s affects five million Americans today and is projected to affect 14 million by 2050.

Faced with these startling figures, many are looking to herbal remedies to prevent and treat symptoms, such as ginkgo. In North America and Europe, ginkgo is the most widely used herbal remedy for cognitive disorders and Alzheimer's disease, despite inconsistent findings from studies.

What Is Ginkgo?

Derived from Ginkgo biloba trees, ginkgo extract has a long history in medicine. In China, ginkgo seeds have been used to treat many different ailments for thousands of years, including blood disorders as well as memory issues. These two traditional uses are the basis for the belief that ginkgo can help with Alzheimer's by improving blood circulation to the brain. This has led to a heated debate in the medical community.

Some of ginkgo’s purported benefits for Alzheimer's patients include helping cognitive function, improving memory, making daily tasks more manageable, and decreasing the occurrence of depression. A 2003 study found that ginkgo extract might reduce the risk of Alzheimer's in elderly women. Another study found it to be as effective as donepezil, a prescription medication.

However, a later study, which sampled considerably more patients for a longer period of time, found there was no difference between ginkgo and a placebo in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. Other more recent studies have had similar findings, but even some recent research supports the claim that ginkgo can stabilize or slow the decline in cognitive functions in patients with dementia. This medical debate will likely continue for some time.

What Else Can Ginkgo Do?

Other possible benefits of ginkgo have been studied. It’s shown a positive effect on people with symptoms of intermittent claudication, which is leg pain that results from poor or inadequate blood flow. However, more research is needed.

When compared with betahistine, an anti-vertigo drug, researchers found that ginkgo was similarly effective and better tolerated in people suffering from vertigo. There are additional claims that ginkgo can help treat and alleviate symptoms of glaucoma, premenstrual syndrome, Raynaud's Phenomenon, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, multiple sclerosis, and tinnitus. Additional study is needed to prove ginkgo’s effectiveness.

What Else Should I Be Aware Of?

As with any other supplement, you should consult with your doctor before you start taking ginkgo. Side effects might include headache, nausea, diarrhea, allergic reactions in the skin, upset stomach, and dizziness. Ginkgo can also interfere with other supplements and medications — particularly antidepressants and blood-related medications.

Ginkgo has also been linked with increased bleeding and possible internal bleeding. As a result, you should stop taking ginkgo supplements at least 36 hours before a surgery or dental procedure. Ginkgo may cause seizures in patients with epilepsy, and patients with diabetes should consult with their doctor before taking the supplement. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take ginkgo.

Ginkgo fruits and seeds contain ginkgolic acids, which are known to be toxic. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements.