Alternative Treatments for Alzheimer's and Dementia

Which ones are worth trying?

“Interest in alternative treatments for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is growing almost as fast as the epidemic itself. The search for a cure moves at a snail’s pace, leaving families desperate for measures that can help their loved one now.”

These are the words of Gail Weatherill, RN, BSN, Certified Alzheimer’s Educator, and Certified Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia Care Trainer. Weatherill is also known online as The Dementia Nurse.

“Times of desperation will always give rise to opportunists who are only interested in making a buck,” she continues.

In this piece, Weatherill offers suggestions on how you can sort true help from the hype and explores some of the most popular alternative treatments on the market right now.

Look for Legitimate Studies and Research

“If you consult Dr. Google for ‘alternative treatments for Alzheimer’s disease,’ you will get a list of hundreds of thousands of citations to review,” says Weatherill. “Add the qualifier ‘scholarly articles,’ and that number is considerably reduced, but it is still a bit more than an afternoon’s study to review! A few simple steps can whittle this sequoia of information down to the toothpick we need to make an informed decision.

“Government web sites and national advocacy organizations are excellent resources for information. Think the National Institute on Aging or the Alzheimer’s Association. If you are interested in a specific treatment, search for ‘[name of the treatment] associations.’ Look for nonprofit groups who are not trying to sell related products.

“When studies of a treatment are mentioned, look for the answers to three key questions:

  1. When was the study done?
    Peer-reviewed circles consider five years old to be the limit to consider work current.
  2. Where was the study done?
    Professionals affiliated with a university are one of the top sources for reliable studies. You want to avoid sources that you can’t verify as legitimate.
  3. Was the treatment tested on people and, if so, how many people?
    A study done on 1,000 people is more trustworthy than one done on 27 people. We also know that treating Alzheimer’s disease and its symptoms is often a matter of trial and error. You can line up twenty people and give the exact same treatment to each one. Some will get better, some will get worse and some won’t change at all.”

How to Decide if a Treatment Is Worth Trying

“Studies look at ‘averages,’ not individual cases,” Weatherill explains. “Each individual brain is unique and responds to its environment in a unique way. So, the fact that a treatment did not help ‘most’ of the people in a trial does not mean it will not help your loved one. So how do we know when is it reasonable to try a treatment?

“There are four criteria you can use in weighing an alternative treatment for AD:

  1. The likelihood of negative side effects.
    If a treatment causes diarrhea, for example, and your loved one is already down to 98 pounds and easily dehydrated, that presents a higher risk to your loved one overall. If they become increasingly frail and end up falling, Alzheimer's will only be one of your many concerns.
  2. The chance of interfering with other treatments in use.
    Ask your physician or licensed pharmacist if the new treatment you are considering will counteract, decrease the absorption of or magnify the effect of other prescribed treatments your loved one is receiving. There is no limit to the way that prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, supplements, vitamins and foods can interact with each other.
  3. The cost.
    Before you shell out hundreds of dollars for any alternative treatment, know this: if it was great enough to warrant that much money, the world would already know about it.
  4. The purity.
    When it comes to alternative and complementary therapies, like supplements, medical foods and essential oils, it is important to know what exactly each pill or vial contains. For many of these treatments, there is no definitive regulatory body that manufacturers must answer to. Carefully examine the ingredients and manufacturing processes of potential treatments to avoid any issues.”

Applying the Guidelines

“Let’s look at a popular example: the use of coconut oil (CO) for AD and other forms of dementia. There have been many claims for coconut oil, but there is no concrete scientific evidence for its effectiveness against Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, studies on CO do not show major negative side effects. It is worth noting that coconut oil can cause diarrhea, though, so it is best to start out with just a tablespoon each day and watch for this issue. You can gradually increase the dose if diarrhea doesn’t arise or is minimal. CO may interfere with the absorption of some medications, so ask your doctor or a licensed pharmacist before you try it. Lastly, the cost of CO is a tiny fraction of many other treatments. Our three criteria did not give us any strong reasons not to try this treatment, so it may be worth experimenting with if your loved one’s health is a good fit and their physician approves it.”

A Closer Look at Other Alternative Treatments

“Now that we have a framework to use when considering alternative treatments, let’s look at eight other popular and/or promising ones. If something sounds reasonable to you, learn more about it,” Weatherill suggests. “You can use the guidelines above to guide your research.”

Cannabinoids

“Cannabinoids, like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), are the chemical components of cannabis or marijuana. Evidence is strong that non-psychoactive doses (low enough to not cause a ‘high’) may have a neuroprotective effect and reduce amyloid and tau in the brain—the proteins that seem to cause all the trouble in AD patients. But before you whip out the brownie pan, remember that these results came from controlled quantities and qualities of these compounds. Consult a professional or a nonprofit organization for more detailed information.”

Cognitive Stimulation

“Purposeful, stimulating activity for a set amount of time each day (can be at short intervals spaced throughout the day) shows strong benefits. People with AD experience improved cognition, a greater feeling of well-being, and improved communication and socializing skills. Set routines (with built-in flexibility) are extremely important for Alzheimer’s patients," Weatherill stresses. "Incorporating pleasant activities can help to enhance their daily routines and reduce behavioral issues like agitation.”

Diet

“The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil and frequent meals with fish, has a strong preventative effect on heart disease and may reduce a person’s dementia risk. It may also slow the decline of patients with mild cognitive impairment or those in the early stages of AD. The benefit seen with this diet tapers off in the middle and advanced stages, but this kind of healthy eating is still important throughout the course of the disease.”

Essential Oils

“Stories of positive responses to essential oils and aromatherapy abound. They can either be used topically or inhaled through aromatic methods, like diffusion. Interestingly enough, most patients with Alzheimer’s lose their sense of smell due to changes in the olfactory centers of the brain. There are few objective studies on essential oils for people with AD.

“One intriguing study showed that using a morning and evening regimen of these oils increased cooperation with care and decreased excessive motor activity (think restless pacing). The morning routine consisted of rosemary and lemon balm, while the evening routine included rosemary and lavender. The oils were rubbed on participants’ faces and arms, which could have a soothing effect in itself. Other supposed benefits of essential oils include reduced agitation and wandering and improved sleep quality.”

Mindfulness/Meditation

“Increased quality of life and decreased stress are proven results of training both people with AD and their caregivers in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This is a meditation-based practice developed and made popular by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Places from schools to prisons are now using MBSR, and you can Google to find a course near you.”

Music Therapy

“Music therapy can produce major improvements in behavior and cognition. The benefits of music were beautifully portrayed in the documentary film, Alive Inside. Following the success of the film, the organization Music and Memory emerged. Their website offers ideas for using music therapy in facilities and at home.”

Spiritual Activities

“These include playing sacred music and reading material that is meaningful to the individual. Spiritual activities can create calm and ease distress, even in those who are no longer able to verbally participate or respond.”

Supplements

“This category of alternative treatments is probably the most studied,” says Weatherill. “We’ve already discussed the potential benefits of coconut oil, but other supplements that show positive changes for brain health are omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, vitamin D and curcumin, which is found in the spice turmeric. Supplements that have not shown benefit for AD in studies include gingko biloba, coral calcium and Coenzyme Q10.

“In 2014, a group of scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles published a small study with ten people with varying degrees of memory impairment. The study incorporated most of the treatments noted above paired with exercise, sleep management and a few other supplements. The improvements in cognition were jaw-dropping and held at two years after the study concluded.

“Programs like the one at UCLA potentially hold the key to hope for people suffering with AD now. If you are thinking about trying some of these alternative treatments, be smart, do your research beforehand and discuss the option with a medical professional,” Weatherill advises.


I want to thank Gail Weatherill for her professional, balanced approach toward the sometimes controversial topic of alternative treatments for Alzheimer's disease. Her information will surely help caregivers move forward in providing the best care for their loved ones.

Carol Bradley Bursack

Follow this author

Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Visit Minding Our Elders

View full profile

You May Also LikeSee all guides >

Veterans' Benefits

Find federal benefits available to your family.

Home Care

How to find, hire and manage home care.

Caregivers' Survival

Everything you need to care for an elderly family member.

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!