Two bottles of aromatherapy oils filled with lavender are side by side next to a fanned out display of fresh and dried lavender.

Memory loss and dementia: alternative therapies

Since many forms of memory loss can be progressive (in other words, symptoms increase over time), it may be worthwhile to look at treatments that do not aim to cure this condition—but instead, they help to manage its symptoms. Many of these therapies can be pleasant to practice, especially since they focus on wellbeing and mood. There is also research to suggest that natural therapies, if started early enough, can actually slow (and possibly even prevent) the onset of memory loss and other forms of dementia when teamed with healthy lifestyle choices.

These alternative therapies can include any one (or all) of the following:

  • Aromatherapy;
  • Diet; and
  • Lifestyle.

Aromatherapy treatment

People have used essential oils for therapeutic reasons for hundreds of years. More recently, research has provided evidence that gives more weight to the healing power of oils and their positive connection to wellbeing. There are many choices out there, with each essence having special properties to address all kinds of ailments and symptoms.

What can different essential oils do?

For dementia, the following essential oils are often recommended.

  • Bergamot. Relieves stress and agitation.
  • Lavender. Well known for its relaxing properties, this is a good one for someone struggling with anxiety or sleep issues. 
  • Lemon balm. Promotes calm and relaxation.
  • Peppermint. This scent is both calming and stimulating at the same time. It's to use first thing in the morning. 
  • Rosemary. Uplifting and stimulating for both mind and body, it’s also been known to relieve depression and even revive a low appetite.

There really are no rules. Sometimes just finding an appealing scent that creates a positive response is a good enough reason to choose it! 

How do you use essential oils?

There are several ways to introduce essential oils into the activities you may have with someone who is living with memory loss.

  • Bath oils. Add to a warm bath for a relaxing experience at the end of the day. One of the great benefits to this practice is that it can also relieve any muscular discomfort and prepare the mind and body for sleep. 
  • Massage. This can be incredibly relaxing, combining both the senses of smell and touch. However, before attempting this therapy, it's important to make sure that the recipient is happy to be touched. Also, make sure to find out about any skin conditions that could be aggravated by a massage with essential oils.
  • Mist. Add several drops of oil to some water in a mister bottle. Shake well to mix and spray into the air.  
  • Moisturisers. Putting a few drops of essential oil in an unscented moisturiser can make a wonderful hand or face cream.
  • Scented pillows and tissues. Dabbing a few drops of oil on these can be a great way of enjoying a subtle encounter with the fragrance. 

You can find more ways of exploring aromatherapy by searching online or looking through some books that specialise on the topic. Many good bookshops will have a decent selection in this subject area.

Once you have discovered a practice that is effective, there’s no reason why you couldn’t make the process a regularly scheduled experience. As long as the person receiving the treatment is keen, many of these ideas can be enjoyed several times a week—or even daily. 

Please consider the following precautions.

  • Avoid trigger smells. Be extra careful about the possibility that certain smells may trigger unexpected (or even unwanted) memories for a person with dementia. This can be confusing or distressing for them. Every person will react differently to a particular scent, so if one person reacts positively to a floral scent, another person may find the smell nauseating. It’s important to be ready for this and to stop the practice if the affected person is not enjoying the experience.
  • Dilute them. Aromatherapy oils can be quite potent and should not be used in undiluted form. Side effects could include headaches, which a person with dementia might not be able to describe or explain. 
  • Keep fresh air coming. Always remember to practice in a well-ventilated room. 
  • Select appropriately. You should be mindful about which scents are stimulating oils (best used at the start of the day), and likewise, which scents have more relaxing qualities (most effective before bed).  

TIP: It’s worth preparing a sample offering of a scent first (perhaps a drop or two on a tissue) to make sure it is agreeable before using it for a massage or adding it to a bath. Also, always remember to check labels on boxes when purchasing a new essential oil; it can be helpful to do your own research into the benefits and potential risks of using a particular scent.  

For more information and practical tips, visit the Dementia UK Aromatherapy page

Diet modifications

Several scientific studies have been conducted in recent years to investigate how diet impacts overall health and wellbeing. Many of these studies have focused on the subject of dementia (in particular) as well as overall mental health. 

The findings have sometimes been astounding, with many claiming that specific choices can have a huge impact on mental wellbeing. Some studies have suggested that switching to a healthier diet can even have a positive impact on the onset of dementia symptoms. 

So with this in mind, what dietary changes should you make to slow or even halt the progression of memory loss?

The brain needs healthy nutrients to function properly and keep you going as long as possible. Many nutritionists and other professionals specialising in diet have looked into the connections between the food you eat and the effects of those choices on mental health and wellbeing.

Stay away from sugar

There is now some evidence to suggest that high levels of sugar can have an impact on the brain and how it functions. Cutting out sugary foods changes everything from creating and retaining memories to improving judgement and making decisions. 

Most nutritionists would now suggest you cut down on (or avoid completely) the following: 

  • Alcohol particularly beer, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. 
  • Processed foods from sandwich meat to processed cheese (like the ones that come in squeezy tubes)—this even holds true for kosher options.
  • Refined carbohydrates like white pasta, white rice and white bread. 
  • Sugar or any foods that contain a high sugar content (like cakes, doughnuts and pastries) and many popular soft drinks (like fizzy pop and even fruit juices and smoothies).

Seek smarter choices...and dark chocolate!

Instead, nutritionists suggest replacing these foods with:

  • Berries and dark-skinned fruits are great, so go ahead and fill up on everything from strawberries and blueberries, to cherries, plums and oranges! 
  • Coffee and dark chocolate can be a nice treat as long as you don’t enjoy them too late in the day (which may interfere with your sleep). Caffeine is even thought to boost memory function, but make sure you consume it in moderation.
  • Leafy green vegetables are nutrient rich, which means you can experience the benefits of things like spinach and kale.
  • Omega-3 sources are found in oily fish (such as mackerel, sardines and salmon) and beans (such as kidney beans and black beans). You can even find it in walnuts and flax seeds. 
  • Water makes every part of your body work better. Drinking water throughout the day is essential when it comes to keeping you hydrated. 
  • Wholegrain foods are better options, so try to look for brown bread, brown rice and wholemeal pasta. 

Don’t forget you can find more information on Following a healthy diet at Jewish Care Interact.

Lifestyle adjustments

While a healthy diet may delay or slow the onset of memory loss, there are other lifestyle choices that can help someone with dementia feel healthy and strong. Here are some suggestions:

Memory loss and exercise

Just 30 minutes of exercise every day can have a positive influence on both mental and physical wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be anything too strenuous; in fact, a brisk walk can be the perfect activity.  

TIP: A good route would include a few inclines—enough to get the heart beating a little faster than usual at intervals throughout your walk.  

Other than the physical benefits, walking is also great for mental wellbeing. Many scientific studies have revealed that getting out into nature, either by visiting a local park or public garden, can do wonders for mood by relieving stress and anxiety. Sensory gardens can be particularly appealing to people with memory loss because they can stimulate the senses through sight, sound and smell. 

For more general advice on why exercise is important and how to get started, have a read of our article on Getting physically active.

Memory loss and sleep

Many scientific reports are now finding links between sleep and the onset of dementia symptoms. Getting a good night’s sleep can help reduce symptoms. 

If there are sleep issues, here are some non-medical steps to take: 

  • Caffeine. Avoid caffeine too late in the day. It might be best to limit intake to one or two cups of tea or coffee before lunch and try some caffeine-free alternatives, such as herbal teas, in the afternoon or evening.
  • Environment. Create an ideal environment by making the bedroom as comfortable as possible.
  • Naps. These should be limited during the day since they may have a negative impact on night-time routines.
  • Schedules. While not essential, it is a good idea for someone with memory loss to wake up and get out of bed at the same time every morning.  

For more help with sleep-related issues, read the section on Sleep disturbance and waking up at night from the Alzheimer's Society. You'll also find information from Jewish Care Interact that explains the importance of Taking care of yourself; make sure you read through to the section that talks about getting a good night’s sleep.

Memory loss and meditation

The health benefits of meditating are now widely promoted by a variety of health professionals who believe it can do wonders for both mental and physical wellbeing. There are some scientists who believe that if practiced early enough and regularly, meditation can help to slow down or even reduce symptoms of dementia. You can find out more about meditation in our Get meditating story on Jewish Care Interact

Memory loss and learning

It sounds obvious but there really is importance to giving the brain a regular workout! People who use their brains regularly can help to keep them healthy.

One suggestion is to try learning new things. It doesn’t have to be a huge project, like taking up a new language, although some programmes do just that. This article about a care home language course demonstrates how it's never too late to learn a new language.

Simply learning a new skill or taking up a hobby that requires some concentration, such as a game of cards or chess, can be an excellent activity for someone with memory loss. Reading is another activity that flexes the mental muscle. There are even some basic (and creative) activities around reading that involve memorising a favourite poem or passage in a book. These can be shared with friends and family members when spending time together or they can just be quietly enjoyed and savoured when alone.

For more inspiration, here are additional suggestions on Keeping your mind stimulated.

Final thoughts on memory loss and alternative therapies

It’s important to note that none of these suggestions should be used to replace medical treatment. However, they can often be used in conjunction with other more traditional approaches. As an aside, it's amazing how a positive mood and good general health can even make someone more receptive to traditional forms of medication.  

Remember that it’s never too early to start. Getting into the habit of living a positive and healthy lifestyle prepares people to handle mental or physical challenges that happen along the way. 

Give it a go and start experiencing the rewards of natural remedies!

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