Bright Light, Aromatherapy Ease Dementia

Alternative Therapies May be Effective Treatment

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 5, 2002 -- A whiff of soothing lavender or exposure to bright light may be enough to relieve some of the most disturbing symptoms of dementia. A group of British researchers says certain alternative therapies may be effective ways to counter the effects of mental decline without the negative side effects of some medications.

Symptoms ranging from agitation and aggression to depression and sleep disturbances are common among older people with dementia. These symptoms can be frightening for both the patients and their caregivers, but managing them with currently available drugs can also produce dangerous side effects like sedation, falls, and possibly even quicker mental decline.

In a letter published in the Dec. 7 issue of the British Medical Journal, Alistair Burns, professor of old age psychiatry at the University of Manchester in the U.K., and colleagues say aromatherapy and bright light treatment have emerged as promising treatments in easing some of the most disturbing symptoms of dementia.

They say aromatherapy has a long history, and three studies -- comparing it to placebo -- have shown that aromatherapy can significantly reduce agitation and improve patients' quality of life. Lemon balm and lavender oil were the two main substances studied. The oils were either inhaled or applied to the skin.

Almost all the study participants completed the aromatherapy course of treatment, which is in stark contrast to the nearly 30% drop-out rates found in drug studies.

The researchers say the essential oils contain substances called terpenes that are absorbed rapidly through the lungs and are thought to be responsible for the soothing effects.

Bright light is known to be effective in treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD) -- depression that occurs when the days gets shorter during winter. Three trials suggest it may also work to ease sleep disturbances, restlessness, and behavioral disorders among people with dementia.

The treatment involves regularly sitting in front of a specially designed light box that gives off a much brighter light that normal office or home lighting.

"People with dementia are among the most vulnerable in our society. Symptoms often need to be treated expediently, and drugs, although moderately effective, can be hazardous," according to the authors of the letter. "Aromatherapy and bright light treatment seem to be safe and effective and may have an important role in managing behavioral problems in people with dementia."

SOURCE: British Medical Journal, Dec. 7 2002.