There are currently numerous clinical trials underway to test the efficacy of a variety of alternative treatments and interventions. Among others, these include cognitive training, antioxidants (e.g., Vitamin C, Vitamin E, beta-carotene), omega-3 fatty acids, DHA supplementation, hormones, type-2 diabetes treatments (insulin seems to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease), exercise, and cardiovascular treatments.
Currently, however, there are no alternative treatments that have been conclusively proven to be effective in preventing, treating, reversing or curing dementia. Thus, be wary of advertisers trying to sell you a “miracle cure” that the government and “big pharma” don’t want you to know about. The moment a truly helpful treatment option is available, it will be announced by reputable sources.
What about Ginkgo biloba?
When people think about alternative treatments for dementia —particularly Alzheimer’s disease (AD)—what comes to mind most often is the herb Ginkgo biloba. Most often simply referred to as ginkgo, this “herb” is actually the leaves of a tree. Numerous studies of ginkgo have been conducted for a variety of conditions. Among the most widely researched are dementia, memory impairment, intermittent claudication (limping), and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
For example, the largest clinical trial ever to evaluate ginkgo's effect on the occurrence of dementia, called the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study, was conducted at four clinical sites over the course of eight years. The GEM trial involved more than 3,000 volunteers age 75 and over, who took ginkgo on a daily basis. To the researchers’ (and everyone’s) dismay, taking ginkgo was found to be ineffective in lowering the overall incidence of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in the elderly; and further analysis of the same data also found ginkgo to be ineffective in slowing cognitive decline, lowering blood pressure, or reducing the incidence of hypertension.
While there have been some smaller studies of ginkgo for memory enhancement that did have some promising results, all the major tests have shown that it does not improve memory. It’s also important to know that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has published the following precautions concerning taking ginkgo:
- Side effects of ginkgo may include headache, nausea, gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, dizziness, or allergic skin reactions. More severe allergic reactions have occasionally been reported.
- There are some data to suggest that ginkgo can increase bleeding risk, so people who take anticoagulant drugs, have bleeding disorders, or have scheduled surgery or dental procedures should use caution and talk to a health care provider if using ginkgo.
- Fresh (raw) ginkgo seeds contain large amounts of a chemical called ginkgotoxin, which can cause serious adverse reactions—even seizures and death. Roasted seeds can also be dangerous. Products made from standardized ginkgo leaf extracts contain little ginkgotoxin and appear to be safe when used orally and appropriately.
For information on how various strategies and lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, and social engagement may be helpful in reducing the risk for developing dementia, read How to Prevent Dementia.