New health study taps senior citizens

August 24, 2000

New health study taps senior citizens

By SCOTT BUTKI / Staff Writer
Study requirements:

- At least 75 years of age.

- Good health.

- A proxy.

For more information about the study, or to volunteer to participate, call the field center at 301-733-8860.

Johns Hopkins University wants about 750 Washington County residents who are at least 75 years old to participate in a $15 million, five-year study to determine if an herbal extract, Ginkgo biloba, can prevent dementia.


The study is intended to find out if the extract from an Asiatic tree can prevent or delay memory loss, as well as thinking and personality changes that occur as some people age, said Dr. Steven T. DeKosky, principal study investigator and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.


Researchers also want to see if Ginkgo biloba can prevent cardiovascular problems, including strokes and fatty deposits, DeKosky said.

Researchers hope to enroll a total of 3,000 healthy seniors - about 750 each in Washington County, Pittsburgh, Pa., Sacramento, Calif. and Forsyth County, N.C. - to participate in the five-year National Institutes of Health's Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory Study.

Half of the people in the study will take a pill containing an extract from the 200 million-year-old Ginkgo biloba tree while the other half will take a placebo, a sugar pill not containing the extract.

The participants and researchers will not know whether they received the extract until the end of the study.

Also required is the participation of a proxy, a person close enough to the study subjects to note and answer questions about changes in their behavior, habits or memory.

Washington County residents have been part of Johns Hopkins health studies for at least 25 years, Johns Hopkins Project Manager Patricia Crowley said. County residents were chosen for this study because there is a wealth of information and data about the local population, Crowley said.

For thousands of years, the Chinese have believed Ginkgo biloba has medicating properties and it is widely prescribed by physicians in Europe to treat both vascular and cognitive disorders, DeKosky said.

Ginkgo biloba is not approved for medical use in the United States but American consumers can buy products that advertise they contain the extract.

There is no monitoring of the herbal supplements, some of which may claim to contain the extract when they don't.

The subjects will visit the Johns Hopkins Washington County field center clinic for various health and memory screenings when they initially enroll and every six months after that for up to five years, Crowley said.

Recruiting will take a year, so the first tests won't start until next August. Some information derived from the testing may be passed on to the subject's doctors, Crowley said.

The subjects are not paid. Many submit to the testing for altruistic reasons, saying they hope the information can help their families, the nation and the world, Crowley said.

"We hope that enough pairs - potential subjects and their proxies - will step forward and express interest in participating in this unique and important preservation trial," said Linda P. Fried, principal investigator at Johns Hopkins University. "Their children and their children's children will be among those who reap the benefits of the greater understanding obtained throughout the study."

"Only a carefully designed study of this magnitude can determine if it is truly beneficial and should be recommended for its potential to prevent dementia and other problems associated with aging," DeKosky said.

Some of the local participants will come from the ongoing Cardiovascular Health Study, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which has been observing the health changes of nearly 6,000 men and women for more than 10 years, he said.

Between one-third and one-half of the population over age 75 experience changes in memory, thinking and personality, collectively known as dementia, DeKosky said. Sometimes the problems are severe enough to interfere with daily functions.

About 4 million people have Alzheimer's disease, the most serious form of dementia, but that number is projected to increase to an estimated 14 million as baby boomers age in the next 20 to 30 years,

The study is funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in collaboration with the National Institute on Aging, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

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