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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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Massage May Soothe Alzheimer's Patients

WebMD Health News

Sept. 18, 2000 -- There may be a reliable, natural way to calm agitated Alzheimer's patients: therapeutic massage. Although little scientific data exists to support its use, practitioners claim they've seen remarkable improvements.

Touch is "very effective for patients with dementia because it's something they remember," says Dawn Nelson, a massage therapist with Compassionate Touch in Walnut Creek, Calif. "We need touch our whole lives, not just when we we're babies."

The main thing massage does is enhance the quality of life for Alzheimer patients, helping them to relax and sleep better, Nelson says. "I think it's mostly a psychosocial benefit," she says. "But when done with lotions, it does soothe the skin, and it increases circulation."

Connie Tjaden, a licensed massage therapist in New York, takes that a step further: "You see an increase in circulation, so the memory loss is not as apparent, especially when patients get treated on a regular basis." Tjaden says that as little as 10 minutes of massage, applied to the right location three times a week, will do it.

Whether massage actually boosts memory is certainly up for question. But at least one study has shown that massage -- and even simple touching -- has a positive effect on some of the other symptoms of Alzheimer's: disruptive behavior and wandering. Researchers in Canada conducted the three-day study on 57 Alzheimer's patients at a facility in British Columbia. The patients were divided into three groups based on the amount of touching they were to get: twice-a-day massages; "non-nurturing" touch, and no touching at all. The caregiving staff, which was not told which patients were in what group, then rated the patients' behavior. Staff members found "touched" groups to be calmer.

But actual studies of the effect of massage therapy on Alzheimer's are few and far between. Research from 1997 showed a dramatic effect on agitated Alzheimer's patients' behavior when massage therapy was continued for six months. Eighty percent of those studied exhibited less abnormal behavior, and a third became relaxed enough during their massage sessions to get sleepy -- which sounds great, until you consider that only four people were tested.

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