Despite Claims, Chinese Herb Ginkgo Does Not Prevent Alzheimer's

By Amir Khan on September 7, 2012 12:21 PM EDT

Ginkgo
Ginkgo biloba leaves (Photo: Creative Commons)

The Chinese herb Ginkgo biloba, long touted for its memory-boosting benefits, actually has no benefit at all, according to a new study, published in the journal the Lancet Neurology. Researchers found that people who took Ginkgo biloba were just as likely as people who took a placebo to develop Alzheimer's disease.

"For a while it was hoped that ginkgo biloba could be the wonder drug," Jess Smith, a spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Society, told Reuters. "However, in recent years evidence has repeatedly shown that it does not have any benefits in preventing the disease or slowing down symptoms."

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The trial lasted more than 5 years and involved nearly 2,900 people aged 70 and older. Half of the patients were given Ginkgo biloba extract while the other half was given a placebo. After 5 years, 4 percent of the Ginkgo biloba group developed Alzheimer's disease, compared to 5 percent in the placebo group.

"This is by far the largest trial of Ginkgo so far," Edzard Ernst, a professor and former director of complementary medicine at Britain's University of Exeter, told Reuters. "The results are disappointing and fail to show that this herbal remedy reduces the risk of Alzheimer's. Another beautiful herbal theory destroyed by an ugly fact."

Lon Schneider, an Alzheimer's researcher who was not involved in the study, said it's clear Ginkgo biloba is a dud.

"This supplement has been studied as extensively as any drug, with no evidence that it improves memory," he said.

He added that if Ginkgo was being developed by a drug company, ""The drug company response would probably be, 'We're not wasting another dime on this dog.'"

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in the United States, affecting more than 5 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of people who suffer from the disease is expected to double every 20 years as population increases and people live longer.

With the prevalence expected to increase, researchers need to focus less on treatment that doesn't work and more on treatment that does, Bruno Vellas, study author and researcher with the Hopital Casselardit in Toulouse, France, told Reuters.

"The fact that prevalence of this debilitating disorder is expected to quadruple by 2050 suggests that research into preventative therapies for this disease needs to receive urgent attention," he said.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's include memory loss, confusion, difficulty completing familiar tasks, decreased judgment and problems speaking or writing.

Healthcare costs related to Alzheimer's disease totaled almost $8 billion in 2010, according to the Alzheimer's Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Alzheimer's patients in the federal and state governments.

There is as yet no cure or successful treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The Obama administration set a goal of 2025 to find an effective treatment and pledged to spend an additional $50 million on dementia research on top of the $450 million the government spends annually until a treatment is found.

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