Alternative Therapies That May Help Ease the Struggles of Alzheimer's Dementia

A variety of therapies may help to reduce the anxiety, depression and agitated behaviors of people struggling with Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists are trying to find new ways to preserve memory and perhaps even prevent Alzheimer's. But what if a loved one already has this debilitating disease?

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but you can try to enhance the person's quality of life. One way to do this is with therapies that take aim at the anxiety, depression and agitated behaviors that often come with dementia. You can talk to your doctor about using these therapies along with medication or as an alternative.

Alternative treatments
Music therapy, massage, exercise and aromatherapy have all shown promise in helping to ease the depressive and anxious behaviors of dementia. But aside from a few small studies, solid proof is lacking on these treatments. Large-scale randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm the results.

All the same, some caregivers and people who work with Alzheimer's patients report seeing improvements from using the following alternative therapies:

Music therapy
Music that is familiar and likable may help to ease depression and agitation in people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. In some cases it can also improve sociability and movement. This is especially true if it has personal meaning for someone or is connected with events from his or her past. Even if someone cannot name the tune, familiar songs can bring a sense of happiness, calm or peace.

Pet therapy
Some people with dementia seem to respond to the comforting presence of an animal even if they respond to little else. Just petting, walking or playing with dogs (or other animals) can bring out feelings of calm and well-being. It makes some people with Alzheimer's remember pets from the past and brings others out of their shells. Regular contact with a pet can help lessen anxiety and agitation and promote social skills.

Massage
There is some evidence that massage therapy may reduce behaviors such as wandering, aggression and agitation. In two studies, hand massage and gentle touching during conversation helped ease agitation and restore appetite in dementia patients over short periods of about an hour. Some researchers and caregivers also believe that massage may help improve memory and cognition in those with dementia.

Exercise
Light exercise and walking appear to reduce wandering, aggression and agitation in some people with Alzheimer's. Mixing exercise into daily routines and scheduled activities can also help ease problem behaviors, some studies found. The type of exercise should be tailored to the person's abilities. Always check with your doctor before you start any type of exercise program.

Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is the use of pure essential oils from fragrant plants. Some research suggests that aromatherapy can promote relaxation and sleep, relieve pain and reduce depression. One small trial showed that aromatherapy significantly helped to relieve agitation and other psychiatric symptoms. Larger trials are underway.

Melatonin and Bright light therapy
Sleep disorders are very common with dementia. Along with the hormone melatonin, exposure to bright light is known to play a role in our sleep/wake cycles. In one well-controlled study, researchers learned that people exposed to specific amounts of daytime bright light showed modest improvements in dementia symptoms such as depression, mood and sleep. One small study, though, showed that melatonin could reverse this good effect. But more research is needed to see the effects of melatonin and light therapy on people with dementia. Some research has not found that melatonin improves any cognitive or behavioral problems seen with dementia.

In any case, do not take any supplements without first talking to your doctor.

A word on vitamin E and ginkgo

  • Vitamin E. Some studies have shown that vitamin E can slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease, while other studies have shown no benefit. Doctors now warn people against taking large dosages of vitamin E, because it can raise your risk of cardiovascular death.
  • Ginkgo. It was once thought that extracts from the leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree could help slow the progression of memory problems. A large-scale scientific study debunked that theory, though.