Combating Alzheimer’s and Dementia with Aromatherapy
Alzheimer’s and dementia disease is defined as a neurodegenerative disease characterized by a progressive cognitive deterioration together with declining activities of daily living and behavioral changes. It is described as a disease where the victims suffer the loss of qualities that define human existence. It is the most common type of dementia. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and it always ends in death. (1) Many people may joke and make light of the behavior of elderly people. I have heard people make remarks about the elderly attributing their behavior to Alzheimer’s or dementia. Alzheimer’s is not a part of the natural aging process, nor is it a disease that affects only the elderly. (1)
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is estimated that 5.7 million Americans of all ages were living with Alzheimer’s and Dementia in 2018. An estimated 5.5 million of these are 65 years and older. 220,000 of these are under 65 and suffer from early onset Alzheimer’s and Dementia. (2) The numbers are astounding and frightening, but what most people don’t consider is that number does not reflect the families, friends, and other caregivers that this disease impacts. People can live with Alzheimer’s anywhere from 3 to 20 years. However, on average the life expectancy is between 4 to 8 years. (3) There is currently no test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. However, PET Scans, MRIs, and blood tests are used to assist healthcare professionals in making a diagnosis. It is important to understand that these tests only help; they do not confirm or diagnose the disease. (6)
Since 1970 researchers have compiled information and performed countless studies not only in hopes of a cure but also to identify the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. (7) Unfortunately, there is no single cause but many factors that could contribute to the disease. When it comes to the most important and complex organ in the human body, these factors are innumerable. It is not such a simple task as dealing with the heart or the kidneys. Unlike all other organs, the brain controls every system in our bodies. It also controls our thoughts and emotions which are unique to each person on earth. The studies, testing, and other research have led healthcare professionals and scientists to identify many factors that can contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. These factors include but are certainly not limited to Diabetes, Heart disease, high cholesterol, stress on the brain, stroke, heart attack, genetics, poor eating patterns, family history, age, medication the individual is routinely taking, and so many more. (4)
There are seven stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and although the symptoms may not manifest right away, a person can actually have the disease for years even decades and not even know. This is the first stage. The symptoms are mild at first, then moderate, followed by severe. Alzheimer’s disease affects people in different ways. Each person will experience symptoms and progression differently. The symptoms in the early stages include but are not limited to short term memory loss, less energy, more time spent sleeping, misplacing items, forgetting names of places or objects, and repeating the same question several times. In the middle stages some symptoms may be increasing confusion and disorientation, emotional issues, obsessive, repetitive, aggressive, or impulsive behavior, delusions (believing things that are untrue), problems with speech or language, disturbed sleep, mood swings, depression, feeling anxious, agitated, or frustrated, or difficulty judging distances. In the late stages, a person with Alzheimer’s may have difficulty changing positions or moving around without assistance, considerable weight loss, loss of speech, or significant problems with short and long-term memory. (3)
The FDA has approved five synthetic medications that are available for individuals with Alzheimer’s. However, none of them can cure or delay the disease. They only offer temporary relief of symptoms. These drugs are Razadyne, Cognex, Namenda, Exelon, and Aricept. These drugs work by dampening or blocking biological responses in the brain. Although they may improve some symptoms of middle and late stage Alzheimer’s, the possible and common side effects could be just as severe. Some of these side effects are anxiety, muscle pain or stiffness, clumsiness, dizziness, unsteadiness, a change in walking and balance, and confusion. (4)
An alternative treatment to conventional synthetic drugs is Aromatherapy. Aromatherapy defined by The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists is the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize, and promote the health of the body. Studies have shown that the application and/inhalation of certain oils and blends have improved the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia both cognitively and physically.
These oils include Peppermint oil which has been found to enhance memory, Lavender oil has mild sedative properties and has been found to boost mood and alertness levels, Sage and Spanish Sage oils are tied to memory improvement and boosting nervous system function, Lemon Balm promotes calmness and relieves anxiety and insomnia, Bergamot relieves anxiety, agitation, and stress, Rosemary stimulates the mind and body, and Ginger offers relief from loss of appetite and constipation.
Studies also show that not only do the oils provide therapeutic benefits, but sensory stimulation itself can reduce agitation and improve sleep. (12) Massage, touch, conversation, relaxing sounds such as those of nature, visual stimulation such as looking through family photographs, putting a puzzle together, or doing a word search, hand massage, and raised bed gardening are all ways to stay mentally engaged. These activities can all be included and done alongside Aromatherapy to enhance the benefits that individuals with Alzheimer’s experience. (9)
There have been studies done on the effects that the application of essential oils has on those affected by Alzheimer’s and Dementia. (8) However, there are so many variables to consider that researchers are still struggling. Some researchers say that there is no proof that Aromatherapy does or does not improve the quality of life of those affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. Other’s have seen improvements in cognitive function, improved mood, decreased pain level, better communication, increased appetite, better mobility, and balance. The dilemma is that the results of these studies are so diverse. The considerations are so vast. Some of these considerations are the design of the study; scales used to determine research outcomes, length of study, stages of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, subjects’ race, age, concentration/dilution of oils used, and many more. (8) The difference between Aromatherapy and conventional medicine (synthetic drugs) is that with Aromatherapy (essential oils), there are absolutely no side effects noted in research. (10) Although this is a good thing, it can be very confusing and frustrating to the individual suffering from the disease as well as their caregivers. This is because, for the most part, we trust our healthcare providers, especially if they have cared for our loved ones or us for a very long time. Our society has become so dependent on conventional medicine, that at times it may seem difficult to believe that a simple all-natural approach can be as or more effective than synthetic drugs, conventional medications, and traditional therapies.
In an article regarding a study of the application of essential oils on individuals with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, it was stated that Aromatherapy to most might give the impression that the condition will improve. Hence the meaning of the word “Therapy” means – treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder. (11) Instead, “a better term is “aroma care,” as we are using aromatic extracts to care for people.” (8) In this case, when dealing with an irreversible disease, we must treat the individual and not the disease. By using Aromatherapy, we can alleviate the negative emotions and a lot of the physiological symptoms they are experiencing. Aromatherapy can also benefit their caregivers as they also struggle with negative emotions throughout the span of the disease.
The facts are that Alzheimer’s disease has proven to be one of the most challenging and costly diseases of our time. In the field of Psychiatry, there is a general lack of pharmaceutical options. (12) In studies utilizing Aromatherapy, the factors are unimaginably vast and diverse, and in the pharmaceutical field, there is nothing synthetic that can replicate the chemicals and processes that naturally occur in the human brain.
- (Holmes & Ballard, 2004). Forrester et al. (2014)
- (Lin et al., 2007; Perry & Perry, 2006)