Mild cognitive impairment, or memory problems, is a major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, estimated to affect around 27.7 million people worldwide.
A new study, presented yesterday at the US-based Alzheimer's Association's first conference on prevention of dementia, shows that a supplement known as GETO, which contains ginseng, epimedium herb, thinleaf milkwort root and two other herbs, could reduce the damage to memory caused by dementia.
Jinzhou Tian of Dongzhimen Hospital at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and colleagues gave 75 patients with mild cognitive impairment, aged at least 65 years old, six capsules three times a day for three monhts.
The daily treatments were made up of either four GETO capsules with two placebos, four placebos with two capsules of the drug piracetam - thought to improve cognitive function but not yet clinically proven - or only placebo pills.
All patients completed memory and learning tests at baseline, at the end of the study, and one year after treatment was stopped.
The patients who took the GETO capsules had increased cognitive function after three months and although it showed a slight decrease a year later, this was still significantly higher than those patients who took placebo tablets, said the researchers.
The herbal also boosted verbal learning and recognizing abilities, as well as five-item memory measures, at the one-year follow-up, with significant improvement over those who took piracetam and placebo.
"This small preliminary clinical study shows that GETO extract capsule may effectively improve memory function in patients with mild cognitive impairment," Tian said.
He added that a multiple-centre clinical trial should now be carried out to test the efficacy and safety of GETO extract on patients with the condition.
"The ingredients in GETO have been used to treat forgetfulness in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and merit further study," Tian added.
Chinese herbal medicine is not only less expensive than standard chemical medications, but also more readily accepted by Chinese elderly people, according to Tian.
According to another study presented at the conference, the worldwide direct costs of Alzheimer's disease and dementia care amount to $156 billion, based on a worldwide prevalence estimate of 27.7 million people with dementia.
Currently, 92 per cent of the total worldwide costs of dementia care are found in what the researchers termed 'the advanced economies', which contain 38 percent of the prevalence.
However ageing populations around the world are expected to drive costs higher, prompting scientists to call for increased funding for research and support services.
The estimate of related worldwide healthcare costs, produced by Bengt Winblad at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm and colleagues, is thought to be the first to date.