In addition to prescription medication, many individuals with dementia, including Alzheimer’s, use herbal medicine, supplemental nutrition, or other alternative therapies to help treat the disease’s progression and symptoms. Diet, physical activity, and mental activities may help slow the progression of the illness.
A healthy diet has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and may also help slow progression of the disease. Specifically, eating fish and leafy green vegetables (for example spinach, kale, and romaine lettuce) and cruciferous vegetables (for example broccoli and cauliflower) has a positive effect. A colorful diet may also be important because fruits and vegetables high in color often contain chemicals called antioxidants that help protect cells from damage. Other foods being studied for possible brain-protecting effects include turmeric, a yellow spice used to make some curries and soy protein.
Physical activity and exercise appear to protect the health of the brain and have been associated with less mental decline with age. Even calming activities like walking and gardening have been shown to have health benefits. Now studies are looking at whether physical activity and exercise can help slow the progression of dementia.
While additional research is required, studies have demonstrated that mental exercises, such as puzzles and brain-training games, may assist in slowing the progression of cognitive issues, such as memory loss and thinking skills. Popular brain exercises include Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and Lumosity (a website that offers cognitive games). Other brain exercises that might be helpful include playing board games or card games and reading books.
The most commonly mentioned herbal medicine in the treatment of dementia symptoms is ginkgo biloba, an extract taken from the leaves of the ginkgo tree. This extract is rich in antioxidants and is commonly used to improve a wide range of bodily functions, from circulation to mental function. There is not a lot of evidence that proves the benefit of ginkgo biloba for dementia patients, but in general it seems to have few side effects. It may prevent or delay the onset of dementia, help with memory issues, and may even help slow the progression of the disease.
Other supplements used by individuals with dementia include supplemental nutrition such as:
As with gingko biloba, vitamin E and selegiline are rich in antioxidants. Low levels of vitamin E over an extended period of time have been linked to the development of dementia, but it is not clear how its use as a supplement can affect dementia once it has been diagnosed. The hormone melatonin, normally secreted by our own bodies, can help individuals who have insomnia and other problems related to the sleep-wake cycle, such as sundowning (symptoms of confusion, disorientation, and agitation getting worse at night).
As mentioned above, eating a lot of fish has been observed to be associated with a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, studies are looking at whether taking fish oil or DHA, a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fish, might slow down damage to the brain in someone with Alzheimer’s.
Many herbal and over-the-counter supplements are not monitored or regulated as carefully as prescription medications, so be sure to ask your doctor if a supplement should be used (and how much). In addition, some dietary supplements and prescription medications should not be taken together, as there is potential for serious interactions.
More on supplements for Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) encompasses a wider range of treatments and approaches, like acupuncture and homeopathic medicine, that have previously been outside the scope of regular medicine. In recent years, more doctors are recommending these types of treatments to supplement medications or more traditional treatments.
Individuals with dementia may benefit from massage therapy or acupuncture. Whereas massage therapy stimulates movement and the flow of blood and lymph in the body, acupuncture is thought to correct and improve the flow of the body’s energy, or Qi. Regardless of their focus, both massage therapy and acupuncture provide the opportunity for touch and the release of stress, depression, and pain that may underlie many of the behavioral and psychiatric problems that can arise in individuals with dementia.
Other therapies, such as art and music therapy or aromatherapy, may help individuals with dementia remember and experience memories more fully through the use of familiar colors, sounds, and smells. In addition, the use of particular essential oils might help persons with dementia to relax. For instance, there has been research that associates the use of lavender oil with the reduction of aggressive behavior.
Bright light therapy has also shown some promise with helping restlessness and sleep issues often associated with dementia. In this type of therapy, the person sits near a light therapy box, which emits light that mimics natural light. This type of therapy is thought to help in resetting the internal clock, helping a person with dementia to sleep better at night.
As with herbal supplements, the field of CAM treatments and therapies is not always strictly regulated or controlled. It is important when seeking out these treatments to inquire about a practitioner’s experience and certification.