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Do ginkgo supplements help memory loss?


I know a woman named Helen who – how can I put this politely? – started collecting social security checks some time ago. She’s an energetic and high-spirited woman, and if you say the words “senior moment” in her presencewell, let’s just say you’d be better off avoiding that phrase.

A few years ago Helen was having more and more of those “moments” when you go into a room to get something and thenwhy did I come in here? This didn’t sit well with her, so she started taking a supplement of ginkgo biloba extract (GBE). Today, if you tried to take away Helen’s daily ginkgo, you’d see she’s a lot stronger than you’d imagine.

I immediately thought of Helen last year when I saw a headline that read: “Forget it! Ginkgo supplements don’t help memory.” I remember thinking that if she saw it she probably responded with something along the lines of, “Hogwash!”

You may remember when this supplement “news” broke and the headlines all screamed about gingko’s failure. But contrary to the reports of its demise, ginkgo biloba is alive and well and still helping many thousands of people stay bright and alert.
Then & now
First – a quick background check: Ginkgo biloba is the oldest living tree species – possibly as much as 200 million years old – and has been cultivated in Asia for almost 5,000 years. Although the ginkgo leaf was used for many centuries to enhance memory and cognitive function, modern research on the pharmacological value of GBE didn’t begin until the late 1950s when it was first concentrated into a standardized extract by German scientists. In 1965 ginkgo biloba as we know it today was introduced to the European market where it has been widely used for more than 30 years to treat circulation problems, sexual dysfunction, and cerebral disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. In 2001, retail sales of ginkgo biloba in America alone totaled $46 million.

But then came the report from researchers at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., who said their primary objective was to evaluate the memory enhancing ability of ginkgo biloba in elderly adults. At the beginning of the report they point out that some GBE supplement makers claim that memory, attention, and related cognitive functions may improve in as little as 4 weeks. Given the short length of the study, it would seem that the researchers were specifically testing the claim about how quickly results MIGHT be experienced by SOME people.
Hungry for sound bites
The Williams team tested 230 men and women, all over the age of 60. Half the group received 40 mg of GBE 3 times per day, and the other half received a placebo. Before, during, and after the trial period, a series of tests were conducted to measure changes in memory, attention and concentration. In addition, the researchers interviewed a spouse or a caregiver of each subject to assess their impressions of changes in cognitive abilities.

The conclusions of the research are summed up with this comment: “These data suggest that when taken following the manufacturer’s instructions, ginkgo provides no measurable benefit in memory or related cognitive function to adults with healthy cognitive function.”

And from that comment, the media heard exactly 7 words – “ginkgo provides no measurable benefit in memory” – and the rush was on to shout the news with banner headlines: “Ginkgo Supplements Don’t Help Memory!” exclaimed MSNBC. “New Study a Blow to Ginkgo’s Reputation!” declared CNN. Reuters Health, a slightly more reserved news outlet, used the word “suggests” to temper the conclusion, but still ended up slamming the door with, “Study Suggests Ginkgo Ineffective Memory Enhancer.”

No matter how you read these headlines and their accompanying reports, there is only one impression the average reader will come away with: ginkgo biloba doesn’t work. That would be your impression, that is, unless you happened to know the truth.
What ginkgo biloba can really do

In October of 1997 the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a study that tested ginkgo biloba against something far more difficult than everyday memory functions – namely Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In that study 309 patients were studied, and the trial lasted 52 weeks – more than 8 times longer than the Williams trial. The conclusion: ginkgo biloba is capable of stabilizing and in many cases improving cognitive performance of demented patients. That’s right: it was shown to actually stop and even reverse the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The message here is clear: a six-week test is worthless – especially when it involves a supplement that affects memory. And that should have been the headline: “Effectiveness of Ginkgo Biloba Questioned by Flawed and Pointless Study.”
Reporting it wrong
In the past 35 years there have been over 300 clinical trials of ginkgo biloba, and the evidence from those trials is overwhelming: GBE’s excellent antioxidant qualities protect cells from free radical damage, and GBE improves blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain and throughout the body. For most people this results in improved cognitive abilities.

Most herbalists and medical professionals who use alternative treatments agree that the recommended daily dosage of 120 mg of ginkgo biloba is too low. Many suggest that the dosage should be 240 mg or more per day. But almost certainly they would all agree that the most effective results of a regimen of ginkgo biloba would be seen over a long period of time, not just a month and a half.

Among the many wise medical instructions that Hippocrates gave to modern medicine, perhaps the wisest, and best known, was this: “First, do no harm.” I thought of this when I read the Williams study and the news reports that followed. The researchers provided a study that was misguided and irrelevant to the genuine usefulness of GBE. That was the first harm. The second harm came when their “news” was widely reported: ginkgo biloba does not improve memory. That’s the sound bite that will leave a lasting impression in the minds of consumers. And once it’s rung, it’s very hard to unring the bell.

The irresponsible media coverage of this topic may have drawn plenty of attention and upped readership, but it did so at the cost of misinforming their audience. I think of people like Helen – people who could really use the help that ginkgo biloba offers, but who now might be put off by the negative headlines. They deserve the best health information available. Last week the mainstream media failed them once again.


To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

“Ginkgo for Memory Enhancement” The Journal of the American Medical Association 2002;288:835-840.
“Study Suggests Ginkgo Ineffective Memory Enhancer” Reuters Health, 8/20/02
“New Study a Blow to Ginkgo’s Reputation” CNN, 8/21/02
“Forget it! Ginkgo Supplements Don’t Help Memory” MSNBC, 8/20/02
“Ginkgo Biloba: Family Ginkoaceae” Web of Species, Wellesley College