We all want that something, preferably an over-the-counter and inexpensive pill, to help maintain our memory, acuity, ability to process information (like medical newsletters) and our daily mental activities. I have to admit that several years ago I took Ginkgo biloba and indeed, if I forgot my daily dose, worried that I would be unable to complete a section in one of my books.
So it was with disappointment that I read the results of the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study, the largest completed randomized double-blind dementia prevention study trial that was published in JAMA in 2008. It found that when Ginkgo biloba was taken at a dose of 120 mg twice daily, it was not effective in reducing the incidence of Alzheimer dementia or overall dementia. But there was still some hope that perhaps this herb which has been thought to work by dilating blood vessels in the brain, reducing free radicals or even reducing the viscosity of the blood flowing through the brain could slow the age associated decline in cognition in those of us who started out without symptoms, i.e. were cognitively OK.
The researchers of the GEM study recently finished tabulating results that could answer this premise…and came up with disappointingly negative conclusions. They followed 3069 participants aged 72 to 96 who had normal cognition. They were either given twice-daily doses of 120-mg extract of Ginkgo biloba or an identical appearing placebo for an average of 6 years. Each year they tested their memory, attention, visual spatial abilities, language abilities and executive functions (yes there are tests for this). They found that the rate of change varied according to how well these individuals did initially. (If they started out with lower scores they ended up with even lower ones). But there was no difference in rates of change between treatment groups. Age, sex, race, education or baseline cognitive impairment did not modify the effect of the treatment. (In other words, G. bilboa did not work better or make a difference in rates of decline for men, women, older, younger or better educated individuals.)
Bottom line: This herb does not work to stave off cognitive decline in older adults. Whether it helps a younger person do so is doubtful. I stopped my Ginkgo years ago and no longer feel guilty.
This is probably a great opportunity to repeat the adage “what is good for the heart is good for the brain”: So exercise (your body and brain), eat a healthy diet, don’t gain weight and make sure your lipid levels are not elevated. Save the money you might spend on Ginkgo supplements for great exercise shoes!