A really old tree

  • Health
  • Sunday, 20 Jul 2003

AS we grow older, our bodies start to show signs of the abuse we have subjected ourselves to over the years. As we age, we realise that our bodies don’t respond as quickly and as efficiently. Despite the fact that we can’t stay young forever, there is no reason why we should not be able to enjoy life in our golden years.  

The sole survivor of a species of tree that flourished during the time of the dinosaurs, Ginkgo biloba, has been found useful in alleviating age-related disorders. Ginkgo’s ability to enhance blood circulation and cellular metabolism explains why taking ginkgo benefits one’s health. The decline in these two bodily functions may explain in part the physical and mental deterioration that occurs with ageing. 

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association acknowledged that ginkgo might help to slow effects of old age on the brain, specifically for the problem of senile dementia. In one study, 40 volunteers, aged 55-77 years, received 40mg of ginkgo or a placebo three times a day for 12 weeks. The volunteers who had impairment of mental performance and vigilance showed significant improvement. Another double-blind study of 166 geriatric patients found that ginkgo was an effective treatment for age-related cerebral disorders as determined by a specially designed geriatric clinical evaluation scale. 

The brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to function properly, failing which impairment in both mental and physical function will occur. Remember that cerebral blood circulation is reduced in older people. Ginkgo contains terpene lactones in the form of ginkgolides and bilobalides which help improve blood circulation in the body. They also inhibit the platelet activation factor (PAF). Under ordinary circumstances, PAF is essential as it helps blood to clot, for example in the event of a cut. However, the substance also tends to slow down blood flow due to this clotting effect. 

Terpenes lactones have also been credited with improving memory and mental function. A double-blind trial involving 30 patients over the age of 50 years showing mild to moderate memory impairment was carried out to determine the efficacy of ginkgo in this disorder. The patients were randomly assigned to receive ginkgo or a placebo for three months and it was found that ginkgo was significantly superior to placebo, as determined by objective tests of memory.  

Ginkgo may also help combat age-related depression in elderly people. Some doctors view this as a form of “brain sleepiness” and ginkgo helps to “wake” the brain by boosting brain blood supply. A double-blind placebo-controlled trial in 1993 studied the effects of ginkgo on 40 patients aged 51-78 years, who had not been responding to conventional anti-depression drugs. Highly significant results were achieved within four weeks. Cognitive functions also showed significant improvement in the ginkgo group. 

The other active component in ginkgo, the flavone glycosides, have potent antioxidant activity and they rid the body of harmful free radicals. These effects may play a role in the purported “anti-ageing” action of ginkgo as free radicals are believed to contribute to premature ageing and dementia. 

Antioxidants also protect the eye from macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 65. Macular degeneration is thought to result in part from oxidative damage to the retina. A small double-blind study on 10 patients with senile macular degeneration found that ginkgo was significantly more effective than placebo, as assessed by improvement in long distance visual acuity.  

If you noticed your parents having some hearing difficulties, they could be suffering from tinnitus (ringing in the ear). The use of ginkgo has been found to help tinnitus if the condition is the result of a circulatory disorder. A double-blind study involving 103 patients with tinnitus found that 40% of those in the ginkgo group showed a marked improvement, as compared to 24.4% in the placebo group.  


The above article is contributed by Thomson's panel of health professionals. The information is intended for educational purposes only. It is not provided in order to diagnose, prescribe or treat any disease, illness or injured condition of the body. Individuals suffering from any diseases, illness or injury should consult their physicians. 



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Gebner, B., et al. Study of the long-term action of a Ginkgo biloba extract on vigilance and mental performance as determined by means of quantitative pharmaco-EEG and psychometric measurements. Arzneimittelforsch 1985(35):1459-1465. 

Taillandar, J., et al. Ginkgo biloba extract in the treatment of cerebral disorders due to ageing. Press Med. 1986(15):1583-1587. 

Halpern, Georges. Ginkgo – A practical Guide (1998). Avery Publishing, Garden City Park, NY. 

Duke, James. Dr Duke”s Essential Herbs (1999). Rodale Press, Penn. 

Rai, G.S., et al. A double-blind placebo-controlled study of Ginkgo biloba extract (Tanakan) in elderly outpatients with mild to moderate memory impairment. Curr Res Med Opin, 1991(12): 350-355. 

Schubert H., Halama, P. Depressive episode primarily unresponsive to therapy in elderly patients: Efficacy of Ginkgo biloba extract (EGB 761) in combination with antidepressants; Geriatr Forsch 1993(3): 45-53. 

Lebuisson, D.A., et al. Treatment of senile macular degeneration with Ginkgo biloba extract. Preliminary double-blind, drug versus placebo study. Press Med.1986(15):1556-1558. 

Meyer, B. A multicentre, randomised, double-blind drug versus placebo study of Ginkgo biloba extract in the treatment of tinnitus. Press Med. 1986(15): 1562-1564. 

Le Bars, P.L., Katz, M.M., Berman, No., Itil, T.M., Freedman, A.M., Schatzberg, A.F. A placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomised trial of an extract of Ginkgo biloba for dementia. North American Egb Study Group. JAMA Oct 1997 278(16):1327-1332 

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