The Use of Aromatherapy to Treat Dementia

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS)

The oils used in aromatherapy are extracted from a wide variety of species, each one believed to have its own particular effect on the mind and body. Of the hundreds of oils available, the following are thought to help in dementia:

  • Basil
  • Chamomile
  • Coriander
  • Lavender
  • Lemon and lemon balm
  • Neroli

Applying aromatherapy

Aromatherapists work in a holistic way with their clients. First, they discuss the client’s medical history and the particular symptoms causing concern, and then they decide which oil or combination of oils to use.

The aromatherapy oils can then be delivered to people’s bodies in several different ways:

  • Massage: Applying directly to the skin.
  • Baths: Adding a few drops to the water, both to make direct contact with the skin and for the person to inhale the steam.
  • Inhalations and vaporizers: Providing the oil in the form of a smoke-like vapor, often using candles.
  • Compresses: Applying directly to the site of an injury or localized pain.

How aromatherapy works

Aromatherapists believe that oil molecules enter the body through the skin and the lining of the lungs and then work their way into the bloodstream. From there, the oil molecules travel around the body to perform their healing duties by interacting with hormones and other biochemical.

Researchers, however, aren’t yet sure about the mechanisms at work during aromatherapy. The most common theory is that the effect of the scents is achieved via the smell (olfactory) receptors in the nose, which are linked by nerve pathways to the areas in the brain involved in memory and emotion. Once stimulated, these areas of the brain in the limbic system (most commonly the amygdala and hippocampus) release yet more chemicals in the patient’s body, leading to feelings of relaxation and calm. The theory seems to make sense.

Unfortunately, the evidence is inconclusive. However, many researchers have found small improvements in levels of agitation and distress — two of the main behavioral symptoms of dementia — as a result of aromatherapy, so it’s certainly worth a try.