As we age, we all want to avoid memory loss. Can supplements like ginkgo and ginseng help?
Memory loss worries many of us as we get older. You might wonder whether you’ll become one of the 10 million baby boomers who develops Alzheimer’s disease. Or, maybe you’re simply seeking ways to fortify your memory with memory supplements, memory vitamins, or memory games.
Will these brain boosters really help our memory? WebMD talked with the experts to find out whether — and which — memory enhancers really work.
(Note: if you suspect you or someone you love may have Alzheimer’s, it’s important to seek medical advice.)
The Need for Memory Enhancers
Finding new ways to slow memory loss could produce astounding results. For example, if the onset of Alzheimer’s could be delayed in today’s population by an average of just one year, there would be about 210,000 fewer people with Alzheimer’s 10 years from now. And that would produce a cost savings of $10 billion.
“The problem with prescription drugs is that they’re extremely expensive and often have limited effectiveness during a short window of time,” says Evangeline Lausier, MD, assistant clinical professor in medicine, Duke Integrative Medicine, Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
Memory Supplements With Potential
Although there are a variety of “brain boosters” on the market — many chockfull of multiple substances — most are lacking research to support their memory-enhancing claims.
Ginkgo biloba is one that shows more promise than many others and is commonly used in Europe for a type of dementia resulting from reduced blood flow, Lausier says. “Ginkgo biloba tends to improve blood flow in small vessels.”
“A couple of meta-analyses and systematic reviews show that ginkgo biloba is helpful for dementia in about the same range as drugs being pushed very heavily to treat Alzheimer’s,” says Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, an associate professor in the complementary and alternative medicine Master’s program of the department of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Unfortunately, that’s not all that successful, she adds. Ginkgo doesn’t seem to help prevent dementia. But in people who already have dementia, it may either improve symptoms or stabilize symptoms so that they don’t get worse. In addition, some but not all studies show benefits in mood, alertness, and mental ability in healthy people who take ginkgo. More research needs to be done to be certain about these effects.
Here are a few other memory supplements that may also have some potential, but require much more study:
- Omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 fish oilsupplements have piqued great interest. Studies suggest that a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acid from foods such as cold-water fish, plant and nut oils, and English walnuts are strongly linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. However, thorough studies comparing omega-3s to placebo are needed to prove this memory benefit from supplements.
- Huperzine A. Also known as Chinese club moss, this natural medicine works in a similar way as Alzheimer’s drugs. But more evidence is needed to confirm its safety and effectiveness.
- Acetyl-L-carnitine. Some studies suggest that this amino acid might help Alzheimer’s patients with memory problems. It may provide a greater benefit to people with early onset and a fast rate of the disease.
- Vitamin E. Although vitamin E apparently doesn’t decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, it may slow its progression. Recent studies have raised concerns about an increased risk of deaths in unhealthy people who take high doses of vitamin E, so be sure to consult with your doctor before taking this supplement.
- Asian (or Panax) ginseng. An herb that’s sometimes used with ginkgo biloba, Asian ginseng may help with fatigue and quality of life, Fugh-Berman tells WebMD. But any benefit for memory, she says, has shown up mostly in a small group or subset of study participants.
Ginkgo Biloba for Memory Loss? With Caution
One of the top-selling herbs in the United States, ginkgo biloba has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine.
A National Institute on Aging (NIH) ginkgo trial of more than 200 healthy adults older than 60 showed no improvement in memory or concentration. It is possible that doses higher than the 120 milligrams used daily in this six-week trial could be effective. Look for results of current large, long-term trials, such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s study with 3,000 volunteers. These will help to confirm whether or not ginkgo biloba can help prevent dementia or enhance memory in healthy people.
Some research suggests that ginkgo biloba is effective for early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Ginkgo biloba may be as effective as acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs such as donepezil (Aricept). Studies have also indicated that ginkgo biloba may be helpful for cerebral insufficiency, a decreased flow of blood to the brain from clogged blood vessels.
However, a 2009 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that compared with placebo, 120 mg twice daily of ginkgo biloba did not result in less cognitive decline in older adults with normal or only mild thinking impairment.
Ginkgo biloba is available in tablets, capsules, teas, and fortified foods. Do not use ginkgo biloba seeds, which can be very toxic. Tea bags often contain 30 milligrams of ginkgo biloba extract, while a typical dose used in ginkgo biloba studies is 80 to 240 milligrams of a standardized extract daily by mouthin two to three divided doses.
Although ginkgo biloba is generally safe, you should be aware of its blood-thinning properties. Stop using ginkgo biloba or use caution before surgery or dental procedures. Your risk for bleeding is also greater if you are taking blood thinners such as aspirin or warfarin. Also, it is possible that ginkgo biloba affects insulin or blood sugar. So be cautious if you have diabetes or hypoglycemia, or if you take substances that affect blood sugar.
Minor side effects of ginkgo biloba may include headache, nausea, or intestinal problems