Ginkgo won’t keep dementia at bay

An herbal extract derived from the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree has been billed by some as a wonder drug for the brain, sharpening memory, boosting mental acuity and keeping dementia at bay.

But in a large study, French researchers have found that the Chinese herbal supplement will not prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

For the study, published in the Sept. 6 online edition of The Lancet Neurology, Dr. Bruno Vellas and colleagues from the Hopital Casselardit in Toulouse recruited more than 2,800 people aged 70 and older who had memory problems. The participants were randomly assigned daily doses of ginkgo biloba extract or an inactive placebo.

After a period of five years, researchers looked at how many people had gone on to develop Alzheimer’s. The study found that 4 per cent of those taking the herbal supplement developed the disease compared with 5 per cent of those taking a placebo. The difference between the two groups was not statistically significant, researchers said.

Additionally, the findings did not suggest any significant differences between the two groups in the number of strokes or deaths.

“We were not able to demonstrate the protective effect of ginkgo," Vellas told HealthDay. “More studies are needed on potential long-term exposure.”

The findings collaborate previous studies that found the herbal extract had no protective effect against Alzheimer’s, a disease that causes brain cells to malfunction and ultimately die.

‘It is understandable that people would want to hear that an over-the-counter herbal remedy could be the answer to preventing Alzheimer’s. For a while it was hoped that ginkgo biloba could be the wonder drug,” Jess Smith, a spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Society, said in a statement.

At present, the best way to reduce dementia risk is to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, not smoke and keep cholesterol levels in check, Smith added.

About 500,000 Canadians suffer from some type of dementia, and 60 per cent of these have Alzheimer’s disease. Health experts predict that unless a cure is discovered, over 1 million Canadians will be living with dementia by the year 2038, as the country’s population continues to age.

While there is still no cure, researchers are finding better ways to detect the disease, and testing of new drugs is underway that could one day lead to a treatment. Currently, medications are available to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Alzheimer’s disease: common myths
Over the years, misconceptions have emerged about the causes of this brain disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, here are some top common myths about ways to stave off dementia.

Myth: Avoid aluminum.

Fact: During the 1960s and 1970s, aluminum emerged as a possible suspect in Alzheimer’s, leading to concern about everyday exposure through pots and pans, beverage cans, antacids and antiperspirants. However, scientific studies have not confirmed any role for aluminum in causing Alzheimer’s, and experts are now focusing on other areas of research.

Myth: Avoid aspartame.

Fact: The safety of artificial sweeteners is a topic of considerable debate, and not only in relation to Alzheimer’s disease. Still, according to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the agency had not been presented with any scientific evidence that would lead to change its conclusion that moderate amounts of aspartame is safe for most people.

Myth: Forget the flu shot.

Fact: The theory that flu shots increase risk for Alzheimer’s — proposed by a U.S. doctor (whose license was suspended) — has reportedly not been confirmed by mainstream studies. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, research has linked flu shots and other vaccinations to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as overall better health.

Myth: Stop getting (or replace) silver dental fillings.

Fact: Scientists have so far found no significant relationship between silver dental fillings and Alzheimer’s. The concern is based on the mercury content in the fillings (about 50 per cent). Mercury, in certain forms, is known to be toxic to the brain. Still public health organizations such as the FDA and World Health Organization continue to say that silver dental restorations are safe.

Myth: Don’t get older.

Fact: It’s widely believed that cognitive decline is a natural part of aging. And while it’s normal for older people to have occasional memory problems, Alzheimer’s is considerably more serious. It’s a disease that damages, and ultimately destroys, brain cells. (Read about the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s.) Further, Alzheimer’s disease isn’t solely a condition affecting older adults, but can strike those in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Needless to say, the results of scientific studies on Alzheimer’s, as well as other health conditions, are often unclear or even contradictory. (For more on studies cited by the Alzheimer’s Association, go here.)