While conducting essential oil research for my Aromatherapy Certification, I was drawn in by the extensive and wonderful research positively supporting Aromatherapy treatments in dementia, Alzheimer's Disease, and other cognitive brain functions. In almost every essential oil book I have read for my studies essential oil use for dementia, Alzheimer's, or memory function is discussed.
Essential oils can’t stop the onset of dementia or prevent it, but they can provide a link into parts of the brain that are connected with focus and concentration, which in turn could be used for memory recall. Using essential oils regularly seems to give access to areas of our memory that might otherwise be overloaded with the plethora of daily events, or ignored by a conscious mind that has its own ideas about what is important. (Worwood, 2016).
When I worked as a nurse, I worked in cardiology. Many of my patients were elderly and resided at the nursing home next to our facility. A handful of my patients also had dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease. This has always been a medical topic of interest to me, as well as a fear of mine. Interestingly enough, although essential oils show effectiveness in dementia therapy they are not commonly used to in a preventive fashion. Now that I look back, none of my clients' nurses or family members had mentioned Aromatherapy for the patient's protocol. At least not enough to ring a bell. Music, photos, and the sound of families' voices were the main remedies these families tried. I was very intrigued about the supportive research using Aromatherapy and wanted to dig deeper into the subject.
A search for the phrase “essential oils for dementia” on the trusted research website The National Library Medicine aka PubMed pulled 98 articles for the search results.
Replacing the word Alzheimer's instead of dementia in my search query pulled up a total 110 related articles or clinical studies (PubMed.gov). The search results pull up unique clinical trials and “full-text” analysis articles for every independent search query that I completed. For my educational purposes and as the research support for my paper Aromatherapy For The Treatment Of Dementia, I am using the research and outcomes from the actual Clinical Trial studies that are filtered under these search results. I would also like to point out surprisingly enough, a search for Dementia on Aromaweb.com pulled up zero results.
To support my research further and to give me perspectives from practicing Aromatherapists I also include research from three main books:
- Clinical Aromatherapy Essential Oils in Healthcare by Jane Buckle, PhD, RN
- The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Woorward
- Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Edition by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young
These books are trusted literature and well reviewed books, they are also sold on reputable sources such as Aromaweb (Aromaweb.com) or suggested in our general course resources. I have read Clinical Aromatherapy from cover to cover. In this book dementia and Alzheimer's is mentioned under the elderly care chapter.
This is what first peaked my interest in this research topic. I was really excited about the research Valeria Woorwad’s book puts into the topic, and lastly I always check The Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Edition book when I am doing any research. I use this book by searching key terms pertaining to both my subject and the top essential oils suggested for Aromatherapy protocols.
What is Dementia? Is this different from Alzheimer's disease? I know in daily use these terms and illnesses are often viewed as the same thing. Let’s look at the true definition of each of these terms. The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life.
Alzheimer's is a specific brain disease and it is also the most common cause of dementia. (alz.org). One of the leading causes for dementia is Alzheimer's disease. The symptoms of dementia vary greatly and can and include having memory loss or trouble remembering or performing the following tasks:
- Problems with short-term memory.
- Keeping track of a purse or wallet.
- Paying bills.
- Planning and preparing meals.
- Remembering appointments.
- Traveling out of the neighborhood.
There are 10 common or early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that all evolve around memory loss, misplacing items, or forgetting simple daily tasks. It is important to be familiar with as many symptoms of these cognitive illnesses when using or researching Aromatherapy for both a holistic manner or clinical manner.
You can use specific essential oils for each symptom. You can also really narrow down your oil use by picking oils that are indicated the most in the clinical trials or actual case studies from experienced Aromatherapists. Because there is no cure for Dementia or Alzheimer’s, treating individual symptoms is a good approach in healing.
PubMed research shows that although some data is limited in research Aromatherapy is an efficacious non-pharmacological therapy for dementia. A 2009 Japanese controlled clinical trial studied the effect of aromatherapy on patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The study was performed on 28 elderly people, 17 of whom had confirmed AD. All patients showed significant improvement in personal orientation related to cognitive function. In conclusion, it was found that aromatherapy was an efficacious and effective therapy for dementia especially showing potential for improving cognitive function (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20377818/).
Not only is aromatherapy showing to be effective, there has been positive studies proving it to be a safe therapy as well. The same study above pointed out that no patients involved in the 2009 study complained of or showed symptoms of any side effectiveness associated with the use of aromatherapy. A 2002 clinical trial studying the safe and effective treatment managing symptoms in severe dementia using the essential oil of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) had 71 patients complete the trial. 30% of these patients showed a reduction in agitation symptoms, 35% of the patients reported a quality of life improvement and no significant side effects were observed in any of the participants. There are a handful of other studies indicating the safe and effective use of Melissa officinalis to soothe agitation in severe dementia patients (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12810768/).
Some of the other most studied essential oils in use for dementia and Alzheimers are Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), Frankincense (Boswellia carterii), Sweet Marjoram (Origanum marjorana) and last but not least Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).
Many of these oils are used together in studies as well (Buckle, 2015). I found it also important to note many of these essential oils improved memory and other cognitive functions in healthy adults too, not just patients with a diagnosed memory illness, especially various Citrus, Rosemary (Rosamarinus officinalis) and Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oils.
I do want to note most of these essential oils are safe. Many of the safety warnings for these oils are for ingesting, which I never suggest to do. Although Meslissa oil was proven safe in studies for dementia, Robert Tisserand does suggest Melissa officinalis be restricted to a .5% maximum dilution on the skin during pregnancy and should avoid being used on children under two. Melissa officinalis can also cause skin irritations, so it should be used under .9% dilution topically on adults.
Research shows some of the most effective and researched methods of Aromatherapy application for dementia treatments is through direct inhalation of essential oils. Interestingly enough many Aromatherapists both clinical and holistic suggest treating patients with dementia by performing massage with an aromatic lotion or oil. Aromatic memories associated with happy times can be drawn upon when the person with dementia is irritated or upset, or showing signs of anxiety. There are lots of hypotheses around the connection between the mind, smell, and memory recall — no one can honestly say how it works, but it does..
The M-technique is mentioned a lot in clinical Aromatherapy readings for elderly care as well as treating patients with Dementia. The M-Technique is an aromatherapy massage where most of the essential oils used in the massage formula evaporate and are inhaled by the patient. This gives the patient dual benefits of essential oils. When essential oils are applied topically using M-technique they enter the bloodstream through the skin plus they enter the olfactory system through the inhaled oil aromas of the blend. Communicating with someone who has become a stranger even to themselves may seem an entirely hopeless task, but one thing that can encourage closeness between people is touch (Woorward, 2016).
In a 2002 Ohio case study, eight elderly patients with dementia were treated regularly for three months using a 2% blend of four essential oils. This blend was applied using the M-technique. The four essential oils used in this blend are Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Mandarin (Citrus sinensis), Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), and Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium var. Amara fol). This study was performed in a residential hospital for dementia patients, the results showed a positive effect in 87% of the participants (Buckle, 2015).
Besides inhaling essential oil blends and including them in direct inhalation formulas, diffusing essential oils has also shown positive support. Diffusing essential oils is a good treatment option when patients are confined to a bed or for any patients who dislike touch. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) are good choices when picking oils to diffuse for dementia therapy. A study by Curran (2003) was able to show diffusing Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) between 3pm - 6pm was able to combat the sundowning behavior in dementia patients. Sundowning is also known as late afternoon confusion, a leading symptom in both dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Diffusing Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) was successful in all 10 of the patients that participated in the Curran study. All patients who had been agitated before the aroma diffusion became calm after the Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) diffusion session (Buckle, 2015).
Aromatherapy and Essential Oils are not only shown to relieve symptoms in dementia and AD, but also there is support showing essential oils in the treatment of other cognitive issues even for healthy adults. Most importantly Aromatherapy has shown to be a SAFE treatment. It’s projected that 3.3% of the American Population will have dementia by the year 2060. Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia in the elderly: 35 million people all over the world are affected by dementia and, according to the survey made by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2012, 54% of all the cases of dementia are AD-related (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5390566/). PudMed does show the research for Aromatherapy and Aromatic Plants for the treatment of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia and AD to be increasing in recent years.
Before I concluded my report, I wanted to mention there is not much research for hydrosol use to treat dementia or AD. At least none I was able to find easily. I checked Ann Harman's Circle H library, PubMed and the hydrosol books that I have in my collection. This was a bit surprising to me. I am hoping to see more research and clinical trials performed for this topic. Hydrosol's are often very gentle yet powerful and effective. The majority of clinical trials performed to study this subject have been performed outside of the United States and as I have mentioned before, they are focused on essential oil diffusion, inhalation, and topical application. With the number of dementia cases increasing in the US at a steady rate, I am hoping to see a wider range of aromatherapy treatments catch on and be scientifically tested.
I feel because aromatherapy treatments are safe and effective for dementia, we are missing out on a wide range of research opportunities by not using essential oil for therapy in every Alzheimer or dementia patient. It’s my opinion that more Western Medicine Physicians should incorporate Aromatherapy at the first notice of memory loss in any adult, regardless of age or diagnosis. Scientific databases such as PubMed, ScienceDirect, Scopus, and Google Scholar have reported research on various essential oils used in different models of Alzheimer's disease.
Out of 55 essential oils identified for Alzheimer's intervention, 28 have been included in the present research (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30360002/). My hope is that more and more US based Aromatherapists will provide these treatments to their elderly clients, thus increasing positive awareness for the use of Aromatherapy in dementia and AD treatments in both residential and hospital settings. I wish I knew more about Aromatherapy when I was working with my cardiology patients that had dementia.
Aromahead Institute: School of Essential Oil Studies, 2020, https://www.aromahead.com/datasheet/data-sheet/aromatherapy-certification-program/melissa
National Library of Medicine, 2020, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/?term=essential+oils+for+dementia
National Library of Medicine, 2020, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/?term=essential+oils+for+alzheimer
Buckle, J. (2015), Clinical Aromatherapy Essential Oils in Healthcare, pp 244-245
Worwood, Valerie Ann. The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy, Revised and Expanded: Over 800 Natural, Nontoxic, and Fragrant Recipes to Create Health, Beauty, and Safe Home and Work Environments . New World Library. Kindle Edition.
Tisserand, R. and Young, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety 2nd Edition. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
Alzheimer’s Association, 2020, https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia
Alzheimer’s Association, 2020, https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/10_signs
Jimbo D, Kimura Y, Taniguchi M, Inoue M, Urakami K. Effect of aromatherapy on patients with Alzheimer's disease. Psychogeriatrics. 2009 Dec;9(4):173-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8301.2009.00299.x. PMID: 20377818.
Ballard, C. G., O'Brien, J. T., Reichelt, K., & Perry, E. K. (2002). Aromatherapy as a safe and effective treatment for the management of agitation in severe dementia: the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with Melissa. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 63(7), 553–558.
Akhondzadeh, S., Noroozian, M., Mohammadi, M., Ohadinia, S., Jamshidi, A. H., & Khani, M. (2003). Melissa officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease: a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trial. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry, 74(7), 863–866. https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.74.7.863
Moss, M., Cook, J., Wesnes, K., & Duckett, P. (2003). Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. The International journal of neuroscience, 113(1), 15–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207450390161903
Scuteri, D., Morrone, L. A., Rombolà, L., Avato, P. R., Bilia, A. R., Corasaniti, M. T., Sakurada, S., Sakurada, T., & Bagetta, G. (2017). Aromatherapy and Aromatic Plants for the Treatment of Behavioural and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia in Patients with Alzheimer's Disease: Clinical Evidence and Possible Mechanisms. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2017, 9416305. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/9416305
Benny A, Thomas J. Essential Oils as Treatment Strategy for Alzheimer's Disease: Current and Future Perspectives. Planta Med. 2019 Feb;85(3):239-248. doi: 10.1055/a-0758-0188. Epub 2018 Oct 25. PMID: 30360002.