a ginkgo leaf

Most people worry about their memory, especially when they forget things they shouldn’t, like an important birthday or a PIN number or a password. There’s nothing much scarier than the fear of dementia. That’s why there is great interest in anything that might improve memory, especially if it is a natural product like ginkgo.

Q. I am 54 and worried about my short term memory. My wife gets annoyed because I forget things she’s told me to do. At work I keep lists so I don’t slip up. I used to remember all my appointments but now I’d be lost without my organizer. My doctor says I don’t have Alzheimer’s but I am still concerned.

I take metoprolol for blood pressure and Tylenol PM to get to sleep. I have just started taking ginkgo in the hope it will improve my memory. Please send me any information you have about this herb and interactions with my medicine.

A. Ginkgo has been used in Europe for decades to treat memory problems. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Oct. 22/29, 1997) suggested that this herb might slow the decline due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Although ginkgo improves learning and memory in animals, another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Aug 21, 2002, demonstrated no measurable improvement in memory or cognitive ability in healthy older adults.

More recently a German study published in the journal Human Psychopharmacology (May, 2016) detected “improved cognitive flexibility” with a Ginkgo biloba extract (EGb761). This was a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial involving elderly volunteers with some memory problems.

To learn more about Ginkgo, visit our herb library.

Could Medications Be Adding Insult to Injury?

It is possible that your medication is contributing to the memory problem and mental fuzziness. Beta-blockers such as metoprolol, atenolol and propranolol have been linked to forgetfulness. Don’t stop your medicine, but ask your physician if an alternate drug would be appropriate for you.

Most European physicians have stopped using beta blockers as first-line treatments for hypertension. You can learn about this in much greater deal in our chapter on high blood pressure in our book Best Choices From The People’s Pharmacy. This book provides many other options for blood pressure control.

Diphenhydramine (the PM in many nighttime pain relievers such as Advil PM and Tylenol PM) may also reduce alertness. Most people do not appreciate how many medications, including some over-the-counter drugs, can throw a monkey wrench into the mental machinery. Certain drugs for bladder problems, cholesterol control, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and heartburn are just a few examples.

We doubt that Ginkgo biloba can counteract the brain fog that anticholinergic drugs like diphenhydramine may produce. If your doctor comes up with a different strategy for your hypertension and insomnia you might not need anything to improve your memory.

If you would like a more detailed discussion of this problem you can find out about medications can cause memory problems and cognitive dysfunction because of their anticholinergic activity at this link to a comprehensive list.

Revised 8/4/16

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  1. Cindy M. Black

    Like so many others, I’m experiencing some low-level short-term memory problems (not significant) and am also a bit frustrated at the reduced neural processing speed, e.g., it often takes a bit longer to think of a word or a name I’m trying to remember. I used to take gingko; but after reading several times that studies showed “no statistical significance” for gingko improving memory, I stopped it.
    My question regards “statistical significance.” Say if 80% of study subjects showed no improved memory (in the case of gingko) but 20% did, would they say there was no statistical significance? But of course 20% did…so a person might be in that 20%, right? Here’s where I wish I’d paid more attention in statistics class…

  2. Cathie

    40 years ago, when I brought Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, I’d see strands of “the mother” floating around in the bottle, plus the sediment on the bottom. Over the last few years, I’ve seen nothing floating around even after I’ve had the bottle open and closed many times. The sediment is not the MOTHER. It’s an enzyme that is good for you. My last three bottles had no floating strands of mother enzyme in it. If you know some one who has apple cider vinegar with a lot of mother, ask them for a little bit, and put it in your vinegar. It will grow into a large mass if you let. My daughter in WV has a gallon bottle under the sink, and the family calls it, “the monster under the sink”. I need to get some from her.

  3. Angela
    St. Louis, MO

    It should be noted that taking ginkgo biloba while also taking Zoloft or other SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) can cause “serotonin syndrome” which can cause seizures and even be fatal.

  4. Ann

    Does the antidepressant Cymbalta (or it’s generic) affect memory or brain function?

  5. Henry
    Durham, NC

    I am almost 93 years of age and have no memory problems whatsoever. I have been taking a low dose of Ginko Biloba (60 mg) daily for 60-years. I have no idea whether it has helped me or not – but I sure as hell am not giving it up at this stage of the game.

  6. Erin

    I would also look at the Tylenol PM and memory issues. I so enjoyed my night’s sleep with Tylenol PM but was alarmed by my decline in daily tasks. I stopped taking the Tylenol PM, and am back on track…just not sleeping.

    • PP

      Try melatonin & lavender on the pillow. Also keep a log to see what activities, foods or drinks may be causing your sleeplessness. Try adding a blue light filter to your computer screen. (Perhaps the national epidemic of insomnia arises partially from people using their computers/tablets, etc. especially in the evening!) For instance, I can’t have Sugar use the computer in the afternoon or evening.

  7. JK

    For Res:
    Natural unfiltered apple cider vinegar has sediment (mother) at the bottom of the bottle, which is healthy to drink. It occurs naturally and contains protein enzyme molecules and is highly regarded for its health benefits. You should shake it before using to get the most out of it.
    I have used Ginko Biloba for short term memory and it works great. Names and numbers come to mind very easily. I ran out at one point and noticed the difference right away. I don’t know about the the latest data; all I have to go by is how well it works for me. One note, apparently it thins the blood and I had to stop taking it when I had an operation.

  8. CJM

    The latest data show that ginko is ineffective for maintaining or improving memory. Only small studies showed any improvement; larger, well-controlled studies show no effect. So save your money and don’t risk side effects on ginko–it can cause problems with other medications. Ginko is basically a waste of time and money when it comes to helping with the aging brain.

  9. vrgnia

    I would like to receive any updates on this interesting topic. Thank you.

  10. Eleanor K

    I find Ginko helpful for memory. There is a very simple test – when not taking ginko, I forget numbers very quickly wnen looking them up in the phone book but can remember them for a minute or so with ginko. (I am not interestd in retaining them longer if of no use to me. I just find it annoying to have to open the phone book again because I have already forgotten it upon closing the book.) I also find my vocabulary recall is greatly improved with ginko.

  11. RES

    I would like some input about acid reducing drugs like prevacid, etc. I take prevacid and decided to stop taking it because I read so much bad info about the continued use of those acid suppressors.
    After stopping the prevacid for three days, I vomited everyday until I went back on it. THEN I WAS TOLD NEVER TO GO OFF THAT DRUG SUDDENLY.
    A gal in the drugstore said to me, “why do you take this terrible stuff?’ Why don’t you use apple cider vinegar——“Mother’s”?— I did not know what she was talking about——as I do have apple cider vinegar, but what’s this stuff about “Mother”????
    Does anyone know what she was talking about.

  12. Kathy

    I suffered from progressing memory loss, tried Ginkgo to no avail. It was only after my son convinced me to be tested for sleep apnea that I found improvement. I’ve been on a CPAP machine for ten months now. My mental acuity has improved greatly as well as my energy level. I’m happy to say my short memory is better than it has been in years not to mention I now dream again. I can understand the vast improvement. I had been sleeping “dead to the world” with SAT O2 at 40-60 % all night.

  13. S.H.

    cipro made my ankle area go boing like a huge rubber band popped.. I limped and had to stay in bed a whole day.
    A Dr Rx’d it for bladder infection but I didn’t use it after the generic name was discovered!

  14. Sally

    I just downloaded your Guide to Drugs and Older People and am surprised there is no caution about using Quinolones, especially Levaquin/Levoflozacin that now carries a black box warning for anyone over 65 for possible ruptured tendons.
    My husband now lists this an as allergy/sensitivity on all his medical forms due to very painful tendon problems in his calves after taking only three of five prescribed pills. Neither his doctor or the pharmacy knew about the black box warning requested by the FDA. When medical people(mostly nurses)read his caution, they are surprised to learn that there may be problems with Levaquin.
    An older friend of ours actually ruptured a tendon after taking a low dose of Cipro for 60 days for a prostate problem.

  15. abigail

    Over the counter anti-diarrheals should be added to your list. If we take them often or if we take two instead of just one, we may find we are spacing out and unable to make simple decisions! We may also experience short term memory problems.

  16. Torrence

    I have all of the problems mentioned and take pills for all of them. It’s a wonder I can remember anything. But it’s better to forget a few things that to die from high blood pressure or other problems I am taking medication for. I hope this makes sense. And remember, I just printed this message and remembered where every key was on the board.

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