The Major Alternative Systems of Medicine

Ayurveda is a complex system described in ancient Hindu religious and medical texts, detailing the use of literally hundreds of natural substances as medicines.

Unani is a system of medicine developed centuries ago in Arabia and Persia, which later mingled with local influences in the Indian subcontinent. Its popularity has dwindled over time. Chinese medicines include a variety of plants and their extracts to treat both symptoms and diseases. Many of them are meant to promote health and block some of the effects of aging even in the absence of disease, and some of them have recently risen to prominence in the fight against age-related memory loss.

Homeopathy originated in Germany two hundred years ago and has a worldwide following. Homeopathy relies on two principles: similars, and less is more. Similars refers to the theory that if a substance causes symptoms in a healthy person, the same substance in very small doses will cure a patient with those very symptoms. Less is more means that traces of active substances, usually mixed with sugar or other inactive substances, are sufficient to treat illnesses but are much less toxic than standard medications.

Proponents of homeopathy say that the minute dose of medicine has a powerful effect. The skeptical view is that the homeopathic sugar pill is no different from a placebo. But even if all that homeopathic therapy produced was a placebo effect, this is nothing to scoff at. Anywhere from 5 to 50 percent of people respond to placebo, depending on the condition being treated. As you might expect, a strong placebo response is virtually unknown in conditions like AIDS and cancer, but is fairly common in disorders like chronic back pain and depression. As I previously noted, the practice effect is responsible for a small, but highly consistent, improvement in memory on placebo, and this practice effect virtually mandates a placebo-

controlled study. The main advantage of homeopathy, of course, is that because the tablets contain so little active ingredient it is usually harmless, which cannot always be said for the medicines from some of the older disciplines like Ayurveda and Unani. To my knowledge, there are no worthwhile promemory homeopathic medications.

Most of these older medical systems focused on the maladies of youth and middle age, because few people lived to a ripe old age in those times. Hence they had few medicines for age-related memory loss. The one exception: Chinese medicine, from which several remedies arose to treat the diseases of aging, including memory loss.

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