Alternative treatments for dementia

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There are other ways to treat dementia that don't involve taking medications. However, it's important to know which alternative treatments have the evidence that proves that they are effective.

Woman listening to music

For more information on alternative treatments, talk to your doctor or a qualified healthcare provider, or contact the Alzheimer Society of Canada at [email protected]. Our Research and KTE (Knowledge Transfer and Exchange) staff will respond to your query. Please note that the Alzheimer Society does not give endorsements or medical advice.

What is considered an alternative treatment?

Alternative treatments are generally non-pharmacological, meaning they do not involve drugs.

Alternative treatments might help you

For instance, you might benefit from therapies that can help you reduce stress and manage some of your symptoms – without the risks of a medication's side effects.

Here are some examples of alternative treatments you may know:

  • Aromatherapy,
  • Coconut oil (see below),
  • Massage therapy,
  • Medicinal cannabis (see below),
  • Music therapy,
  • Natural health products (see below) and
  • Pet therapy.

It's important for us to consider alternative treatments for a few reasons. Alternative treatments can:

  • Highlight our hopes to have effective treatments and cures for Alzheimer's disease and other dementias – without having to rely on medications and their possible risks.
  • Reflect our desires to see positive changes and improvements in our quality of life and care. As well, effective treatments can help give caregivers respite and relief.
  • Reinforce the values we place on research. We can trust that a treatment supported by evidence is something that can help us live well.

Alternative treatments might also be ineffective or even harmful for you

However, the lack of research for many alternative treatments prevents us from determining their effectiveness.

This means that, for many alternative treatments, there is no conclusive evidence that lets us say that they can successfully treat the symptoms of dementia.

There are also risks in taking an unproven treatment – if a possible treatment hasn't been well-studied, there's a chance you're putting yourself at risk.

How can you know whether an alternative treatment is good for you or not?

Ask your doctor or a qualified healthcare provider. The Alzheimer Society can provide you with information on alternative treatments, but we do not provide medical advice.

What's the most effective alternative treatment for dementia?

The most effective way that you can counter the symptoms of dementia, without taking medication, is to live a brain-healthy lifestyle.

A brain-healthy lifestyle involves:

  • Being physically active,
  • Being socially active,
  • Challenging your brain,
  • Eating healthily,
  • Making conscious and safe choices and
  • Managing stress.

While these actions won't stop or reverse the progression of dementia, research has shown that they can help you live well for a longer period of time, slowing the progression of dementia into the middle and late stages.

Learn more about living a brain-healthy lifestyle.

Alternative treatments that need more evidence

For these alternative treatments, we need to see more research to know for sure that they are effective in treating dementia.

Cannabis and cannabis products

The claim

Can cannabis, or related products such as cannabis oil, treat dementia?

The claim has to do with how certain chemicals in cannabis, known as cannabinoids, can change how our brain cells communicate with each other. Presumably, this means that cannabis can counteract symptoms of dementia, like memory loss and mood changes.

What we know

Though it may be thought of as an alternative treatment, cannabis is considered to be a drug in Canada.

There has been no evidence found so far that cannabis is useful for the treatment or prevention of dementia. However, more research is being done to investigate possible uses.

Learn more about cannabis and the treatment of dementia.

Coconut oil

The claim

Can coconut oil treat dementia? As well, could coconut oil also prevent dementia from happening?

The claim has to do with ketones:

  • Ketones are what our bodies produce when they convert fat into energy.
  • The primary source of energy for the brain is glucose.
  • In Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, it’s believed that brain cells have difficulty metabolizing glucose.

The theory is that ketones produced in our bodies when digesting coconut oil may provide an alternative fuel source to keep the brain nourished and dementia-free.

What we know

Currently, there is no research to support or refute the theory that coconut oil can prevent or treat dementia. More research is required before drawing any firm conclusions.

Natural health products

The claim

Can natural health products treat dementia?

Natural health products often refer to herbal remedies and dietary supplements. Common examples include:

  • Ginkgo biloba. This plant extract, rich in antioxidants, is said to treat dementia symptoms through its anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Melatonin. Melatonin supplements are used to improve sleep, and may, theoretically, prevent the progression of dementia.
  • Omega-3 fatty acid. Found in fish oil supplements, this fatty acid is thought to have many potential benefits for the brain.

What we know

So far, studies have not conclusively shown that any particular natural health product is an effective treatment for dementia.

Should you consider using a natural health product, think about the following to minimize your risk:

  • Don't assume "natural" means "safe."
  • Be wary of health-related claims not supported by research and evidence.
  • Herbal remedies can change the way prescription drugs work. Be aware of interactions with other drugs and tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbal remedies you may be taking.

The Alzheimer Society is funding research to identify beneficial therapies for people living with dementia. Check out the latest funding results from the Alzheimer Society Research Program.

More useful links and resources

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/treatments/alternative-therapies

Alternative therapies. Alzheimer's Society UK. This webpage from Alzheimer's Society UK includes information for other alternative therapies such as bright light therapy and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.

https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/treatments/alternative-treatments

Alternative treatments. Alzheimer's Association. This webpage from the U.S.-based Alzheimer's Association examines the evidence behind certain herbal remedies and dietary supplements that are often presented as alternative treatments for dementia, such as coenzyme Q10, ginkgo biloba and coral calcium.

Talking to your doctor about dementia

Getting an official diagnosis begins with your family doctor. Your doctor can also help answer questions you may have about dementia. In preparation for your doctor's appointment, here are some helpful things to know and expect.

Learn more
Smiling senior woman talking to her doctor.

Living well with dementia

A diagnosis of dementia does not mean your life is over. This section provides you with strategies to live well with dementia, along with tips and advice from other people who are living with dementia.

Learn more
We want people to understand that life can still be full.

The Alzheimer Society Research Program

On this page, learn more about the Alzheimer Society Research Program, including funding opportunities for researchers, when applications open and highlights from previous ASRP funded research.

Learn more
The Alzheimer Society Research Program