A Chinese herbal supplement may improve forgetfulness of older people with early memory problems.

A new study shows that three months of GETO, an herbal extract, improved the memory skills of people over age 65 with mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment -- subtle but measurable memory problems -- is a major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

GETO contained ginseng, epimedium herb, thinleaf milkwort root, and two other herbs. The names of the other two herbs were not revealed.

"The ingredients in GETO have been used to treat forgetfulness in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and merit further study," says researcher Jinzhou Tian, MD, PhD, of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, in a news release. "Chinese herbal medicine is not only less expensive than standard chemical medications, but also more readily accepted by Chinese elderly people."

Tian presented the results of his study this week at the First Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Prevention of Dementia in Washington.

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In the study, 70 people aged 65 and over with mild cognitive impairment were randomly assigned to receive four GETO capsules and two placebo pills, two piracetam pills and four placebo pills, or six placebo pills three times a day for three months. Researchers say piracetam is a psychoactive drug that some think may improve cognitive function but has not been widely tested.

The participants' memory and thinking skills were measured before and after treatment and again one year later.

After three months of treatment, mental function scores improved equally with GETO and piracetam. The patients then stopped taking any treatment. One year after the start of the study mental functions scored had decreased in the GETO group, but they were still higher than those that had taken only placebo.

In addition, the study showed that total score for five memory items was higher in the GETO group than both the piracetam and placebo groups at the one year point.

"This small preliminary clinical study shows that GETO extract capsule may effectively improve memory function in patients with MCI (mild cognitive impairment)," says Tian.

The researchers call for larger trials to study GETO's effect on mild cognitive impairment.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: First Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, Washington, D.C., June 18-21, 2005. News release, Alzheimer's Association.