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Complementary & Alternative Therapies for Alzheimer’s

More than likely, most people have heard of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Although those two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Complementary treatments are used together with conventional medicine, whereas alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medicine.3 More than 30% of adults in the US use non-mainstream approaches in their healthcare, typically in conjunction with traditional or conventional health care.1 If complementary or alternative treatments are chosen for any health condition, including Alzheimer’s disease, talk with a mainstream health care provider such as a neurologist before starting anything. Some CAM approaches may not be effective and therefore pose an unnecessary cost to the patient. Sometimes CAM may interfere with treatment protocols, medications, or may pose a risk, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

If someone chooses to use complementary treatments, their main provider can work with them to monitor any possible side effects or changes if they know the full picture of what the patient is taking and doing.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba, also known as ginkgo, is a tree species that has been around for a very long time; in fact, it’s one of the oldest known tree species.2 Ginkgo biloba products are made from extracts taken from the leaves of the tree. Ginkgo contains flavonoids, which contain antioxidants, as well as terpenoids, which can help circulation. Proponents of ginkgo biloba supplements tout its use for improving memory and treating dementia, but the evidence on this is currently mixed.

The Ginko Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study is the largest clinical trial ever to look at ginkgo’s effect on dementia, and one of the main objectives was to see if the supplement would lower the incidence of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease.3 Study participants were followed over 6 to 7 years, and ginkgo showed no overall effect for reducing either dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.3

If someone decides to take ginkgo biloba supplements, check with a doctor to see if it will interact with any other supplements or medications they’re taking, as this supplement may interact with a lot of common drugs like anti-coagulants, antidepressants, diabetes drugs, and even ibuprofen.2 Even though it’s not a prescription drug and is “natural,” it can still have adverse effects and interact with other substances in potentially dangerous ways.

Other supplements

There are other supplements that have been mentioned in a variety of studies for possible CAM treatments for Alzheimer’s, including coenzyme Q10, coral calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and huperzine A.4 None of these have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and have not shown to be effective in treating Alzheimer’s or dementia. If an individual is thinking of taking a supplement, ask a doctor about the potential risks and benefits, and do research about what is known about the supplement and its effects on Alzheimer’s disease.

Meditation

Meditation is a relaxation technique that is thousands of years old but vastly understudied. It can be helpful in reducing chronic stress, which has been linked to lower levels of brain health and neurotoxic cell damage.5 Meditation may increase the amount of certain neurotransmitters, which can help stabilize brain synapses; this is important because synaptic dysfunction is part of Alzheimer’s disease.5 Meditation may also help improve blood flow in the brain, improving overall function and have positive effects on memory and cognitive functioning.5 More information is needed to come to a definitive conclusion, but adding a meditation practice might help to relieve general stress, in both Alzheimer patients and their caregivers. Guided meditation scripts for Alzheimer’s disease or meditation apps can be found online.

Talk with a doctor about whether meditation may be beneficial for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. There are often meditation classes at local hospitals or yoga studios. Make sure meditation classes are run by certified, trained professionals.

Considerations

Alternative and complementary supplements or treatments are not monitored or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so there is always the chance that the supplements will not be effective at all, or cause unwanted or unknown, or even dangerous, side effects. Supplements or treatments may also interfere with traditional treatment, which is why a doctor should be aware of any CAM the person is using.

Complementary medicine and treatments can be beneficial when used in conjunction with traditional medicine. Talk with a doctor about these complementary approaches, in order to make the best, most informed decision that is best and safest for an individual’s Alzheimer’s treatment plan.

Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: June 2019
  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name? 2018. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/integrative-health#hed1 Accessed February 22, 2019.
  2. Mayo Clinic. Gingko. 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-ginkgo/art-20362032 Accessed February 22, 2019.
  3. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Gingko Evaluation of Memory (GEM) Study Fails to Show Benefit in Preventing Dementia in the Elderly. 2008. https://nccih.nih.gov/news/2008/111808.htm Accessed February 22, 2019.
  4. Alzheimer’s Association. Alternative Treatments. 2019. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/treatments/alternative-treatments Accessed February 22, 2019.
  5. Khalsa DS. Stress, meditation, and Alzheimer’s disease prevention: Where the evidence stands. J Alzheimer’s Dis. 2015; 48(1): 1-12. Doi: 10.3233/JAD-142766 Accessed February 22, 2019.