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Living with Dementia: Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Living with Dementia: Complementary and Alternative Therapies

As dementia progresses, brain cells are damaged, causing cognitive symptoms to worsen. While current medications cannot stop disease progression, they may help lessen or stabilize symptoms for a time by boosting certain chemicals involved in carrying messages among the brain's nerve cells. However, these drugs have unwanted side effects, or have little effect in some individuals. Given no cure and limited treatment available, it is no surprise that there is high public interest in complementary and alternative therapies when it comes to treating dementia.

Complementary and alternative therapies are a broad range of treatments used outside of conventional medicine to either complement, or provide an alternative to, standard treatments. The area of complementary medicine can be controversial because the effectiveness of these therapies are often unproven, there is a lack of high quality research, or because their safety profile is in question. Nonetheless, there is still high interest in “CAM” (complementary and alternative medicine) to treat Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

One good example of the popularity of CAM is the use of vitamins and herbal extracts.  While their use is associated with side effects, potential serious drug interactions and mostly unproven efficacy, research has shown that nearly half of dementia patients are receiving them.

Some of the more promising CAM therapies are those used to manage common symptoms associated with dementia including apathy, insomnia and agitation. A number of studies have addressed the use of acupuncture for treating insomnia in persons with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Aromatherapy, based on the theory that oils derived from plants have beneficial properties, have been shown to be useful in helping people with dementia relax. Diluted lavender or lemon balm can be added to a bath or used to gently massage the skin. Another area that is being researched is bright light therapy. Sleep problems or “sundowning” behaviors are commonly associated with dementia and can be very stressful on both the individual and their caregivers. Bright light therapy includes using stronger general lighting at home during the daytime to enhance the sense of night and day.

Music therapy is another promising CAM for treating neuropsychiatric symptoms of dementia. Music can have powerful effect on the individual with dementia’s state of mind, evoking memories from one’s youth, and soothing unwanted agitation. Treatment usually involves playing music that the individual enjoys for up to 30 minutes in a quiet room. Music and Memory is an excellent example of a successful program based on the premise that individualized music calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.

Before considering the use of CAM in persons with dementia, it is important to speak to their physician. Many herbal remedies interact with prescription medications, which can result in serious side effects. It is also important for consumers to ascertain information about CAM from sound, reputable sources. A good website to visit is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) which provides up to date information on a wide variety of non-pharmacologic treatments. NIH Senior Health is another excellent website with a section devoted exclusively to CAM.   

Memory Care at Assisted Living at NewBridge on the Charles 

NewBridge on the Charles offers the Gilda and Alfred A. Slifka Memory Care Assisted Living Residences to seniors with early stage and mid-stage Alzheimer's Disease and/or a related dementia. The Memory Care Assisted Living Residences at NewBridge on the Charles provides a personalized and meaningful assisted living experience for residents based on the history, preferences and goals of each individual. Short-term stays now available. 

Learn more about Memory Care at NewBridge

Elaine Abrams, MPH, RN, CHES's picture

About the Blogger

Program Manager, Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care at Hebrew Senior Life until June 2015

Elaine Abrams, MPH, RN, CHES, joined HSL in December 2013 bringing with her more than 25 years of nursing, public health, and health education experience. Her areas of expertise include community health assessment, program development and management, and health communications.  A graduate of University of Connecticut Graduate Program in Public Health, Elaine has held several leadership roles including President-elect at the Connecticut Public Health Association, the state affiliate of the American Public Health Association, where she also served for several years on the Board of Directors...

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As a 60 year old personal trainer and health coach wanna-be who's always interesting in finding ways to help aging populations, I stumbled (no pun intended) across the HSL website. I enjoyed very much, reading this (Living with Dementia: Complementary and Alternative Therapies) article. I had not heard about "CAM" prior to your well written and helpful article. Thank You, Jon
Thanks for your feedback, Jon. We're glad you enjoyed it!

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