Every now and then the news media reports on a new drug that is being tested as a way to treat Alzheimer’s disease; that initial tests have had “promising results”; “further testing” is needed. If you are visiting this website you are likely very close to someone who has been diagnosed with this disorder and, like us, you get excited when you read these reports: modern medicine might finally be cracking the code, might finally be getting close to a cure. But so far the results of “further testing” have been disappointing. We remain confident that modern medicine will eventually find a cure, or more likely a way to stop the onset of or the progression of Alzheimer’s. We are less confident that it will be soon. In the meantime, we look for alternative therapies, ways to improve the lives of the people who have the disease now.
Alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes known as complimentary therapy. For our purposes, the term non-pharmacological therapy for Alzheimer’s is probably more descriptive. We think of alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s as any treatment that doesn’t involve drugs or medication, or some surgical intervention or other medical procedure. That covers a lot of ground; indeed it can (and does) include anything from diet to aromatherapy and light therapy. Many of the alternative methods covered below have not been subjected to rigorous clinical testing, the way pharmaceutical companies are required to test their drugs. On the other hand, our suggested alternatives do not have the potential dangerous and deadly side effects that drugs often do.
The alternative therapies have varying amounts of evidence that they do, in fact, provide a degree of relief for symptoms of dementia, and many do have fairly extensive clinical support to back up those claims. We will discuss the claims and the support for each type of treatment separately. Most of the categories below link to other pages that provide more detail and more information (eventually all will), so be sure to follow the links.
Alternative Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease
Art therapy is quickly becoming one of the most thoroughly documented alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. Art therapists and activity professionals have long known that for people with Alzheimer’s, creating art as well as enjoying art opens up avenues of cognition and communication that were often thought to be lost forever.
More and more, in cities all over the world, art museums are creating tours for people with dementia and their caregivers. For anyone for whom attending such a tour is impractical, there are many ways that art can be brought to them. Painting and other arts and crafts are becoming a staple of caregivers, both professional and family. True art therapy requires a trained therapist, but with just a little instruction, you can art creation can be a very meaningful activity for the person or people in your care. More…
Music therapy is really a sub-set of art therapy. Like the rest of that broader category, music therapy can involve both making music and enjoying music. Listening to (mostly familiar) songs and music is the ideal way to practice music therapy with people who have Alzheimer’s. And it’s the oldies that are the perfect choice: tunes and lyrics that are recognizable will often put a smile on a previously stoic face and get a song out of a heretofore non-communicative individual.
Reminiscence plays a stronger role in music therapy than in art therapy in general, especially for a population with dementia. We all remember song lyrics and can sing along to hits that we may not have heard for years. While we’re singing we often think of what we were doing when we were listening to the same song decades ago. And those memories make us feel good. That is reminiscence. Because older memories are not effected until later as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, and because almost everyone has a large repertoire of song lyrics, and because we have so many happy associations with so many old songs, and…. Well you get the idea. Music therapy can be a strong ‘medicine’ for people with dementia. Read more about music therapy…
Many people with progressive memory disorders, especially Alzheimer’s disease, are much more comfortable talking about memories of long ago than about more recent happenings and experiences. Because the area of the brain that stores memories long term is affected later in the disease’s progression than the area that forms new memories, the affected person will remember more about her life when she was 40 years younger than she knows about what has happened earlier in the week or at breakfast this morning. Old pictures provide a perfect vehicle for reminiscing. Bring out those old photo albums. Find pictures that are characteristic of the times and places she is likely to remember most fondly. Add some music that she listened to when she was young.
More about reminiscence therapy…
Several studies have found compelling evidence that certain aromatherapy oils have a positive effect on the mood, behavior, and even on the cognitive functioning of people with dementia. Aromatherapy is the use of volatile plant oils to improve psychological and physical health and prevent disease, and to affect mood. These “essential oils” are distilled from different parts of plants and contain the essence of the plant.
Essential plant oils are safe if a few, simple precautions are followed. If you have a question or a concern about the proper or safe use of any aromatherapy product, please call (our phone number is at the top of every page on the Website) or contact us. Or ask a professional aromatherapist. Read more about aromatherapy as an alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.
Read more about aromatherapy…
An increasing amount of evidence shows that bright, full spectrum light, on the magnitude of 5000 LUX to 10,000 LUX, can reset the circadian rhythm in people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Daily exposure to this type of light helps dementia patients with sleep disorders sleep longer and spend more time in deep sleep. As an added benefit, cognitive deterioration slowed with regular exposure to bright light, and symptoms of depression decreased.
Read more about light therapy…
“I gave my dear Mother one of the dolls from “doll therapy” just a few months before we had to put her into full time care. The doll is the love of her life. It is the only thing she feels safe and comfort from and with. It is the only thing that she is able to talk to freely and love and nurture. She believes she is the doll’s grandmother and that the doll is real. She carries it everywhere with her and it’s beautiful to see that even though she is in the penultimate stage of vascular dementia, she is still able to display the loving and nurturing part of her nature that we all had the joy of receiving over her many years. Thank you.” ~ Kate (Sydney, NSW, Australia)
The above quotation is a note of thanks from a friend in Australia who found that her mother was greatly comforted by the simple act of caring for a doll. Most of the evidence supporting doll therapy as an effective alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s disease is anecdotal, like Kate’s testimony, but there is quite a lot of it. As is often the case, so much anecdotal evidence usually gets the pro’s interested. A growing body of medical and scientific work supports what so many social workers, nurses, and caregivers have known for a long time; doll therapy works as a way to treat many of the behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Read more….
You will find a large selection of therapy dolls in our store. We have one line that is very realistic. Our other line is so realistic you will have to look two or even three times, and touch the face to convince yourself that what you are holding is not a live baby. These dolls are each custom made, and because of this are quite expensive, but I am constantly surprised by how many we sell. And I am not kidding about the realism. The person who makes these for us, while visiting a care community, gently placed one of the dolls in the arms of the nurse she was talking with. Several minutes later, after talking and swaying, she touched the baby’s face and almost shrieked, “It’s a doll!”
Diet and dietary supplements
The first part of “diet-and-exercise” may eventually prove to be the single most important factor in avoiding or delaying Alzheimer’s disease. Current research advocates a heart-healthy diet for brain health, so in a way, this is a win-win: Eat to keep your heart healthy and your brain stays healthy too. The next bit of good news is that the best way to follow this advise is by eating a traditional Mediterranean diet, which most people consider “Good Eats”.
Read more about the effect that diet might have on Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases of the brain.
This is the second half of the “diet-and-exercise” mantra. According to Dr. Ronald Petersen at the Mayo Clinic, “Regular physical exercise is probably the best means we have of preventing Alzheimer’s disease today, better than medications, better than intellectual activity, better than supplements and diet.”
Alternative Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease: Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine
Both acupuncture and herbal remedies are gaining in acceptance in the West as treatments for a variety of ailments. Together, these two disciplines are the core of Traditional Chinese Medicine and have been practiced for thousands of years. Many of our modern medicines are derived from the staples of the Chinese herbal apothecary; and though western medicine does not pretend to know how, it is beginning to conceed that acupuncture does work.
Like so many drugs that have shown promise in initial tests but proven ineffective on further investigation, several herbs that were once thought to have an effect on the disease have not held up to more rigorous scrutiny. On the other hand, there are several herbal remedies that are being investigated for neurological benefits including cognitive and memory improvement in people with dementia.
Below is a partial list of herbal remedies that are being considered as possible alternative treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. You’ll notice that most of the studies are from Japan and China. Eastern cultures are much more invested in herbal medicine and natural healing than we are. As these herbs are just beginning to be studied in the West, we do not recommend this as a course of treatment, mostly because it would be very difficult to find an expert who could supervise such treatment. We will follow future developments.
- Ginko Biloba — An extract of this herb has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for its affect on memory, brain function and cognition. It may be one of the best known herbal treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, but has recently fallen into dis-favor as the result of a study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The double blind study involved more than 3,000 subjects between the ages of 72 and 96 over a period of nine years. The conclusion was that a Ginko Biloba extract did not reduce the incidence of dementia, nor did it have and effect on cognitive decline in older adults. This does not mean necessarily that Ginko Biloba has no effect on memory, cognition, dementia, etc., but a study with so many test subjects that spanned a nine year period carries considerable weight.
- Turmeric — This is the one that is probably getting the most attention at the moment. It started when someone noticed that people who had a lot of curie in their diet seemed to be more resistant to Alzheimer’s. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties that show promise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and other neuro-degenerative disorders.
- Kami-Umtan-To (KUT) — A Japanese herbal concoction of 13 herbs has been used in Japan for centuries as a treatment for a variety of neuropsychiatric problems. It has been found to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease as compared to a control group.
- Choto-san — another Japanese herbal mixture of 11 herbs used to treat cerebrovascular disease, it has consistently shown beneficial effects in people with vascular dementia.
- Chinese herbal medicine, ba wei di huang wan (BDW)
- Yizhi Jiannao — A Chinese herbal medicine. A 2009 study concluded that acupuncture combined with Yizhi Jiannao granules has a significant therapeutic effect on Alzheimer’s disease, with better results in combination than the Yizhi Jiannao alone, or when compared to Aricept, a modern medicine often prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease.
- Toki-shakuyaku-san (TSS) — Several studies, mostly in China and Japan, have suggested that this traditional herbal remedy is effective in the treatment of cognitive impairment. A study that was designed to observe the effect of this herbal treatment on mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease had results consistent with previous studies. The eight subjects who completed the study showed an improved orientation to place. Other studies have found that TSS improved cognitive functioning, orientation in time and place, and spontaneous activity in people with dementia.