Alzheimer's Society's view on complementary medicine / alternative therapies

Find out what we think about complementary medicine and alternative therapies and how they relate to the needs of people affected by dementia. 

The term complementary and alternative therapy covers a large number of therapies. These include herbal medicine, aromatherapy and massage, music, dance and other psychosocial therapies, acupuncture and dietary supplements.

Many people with dementia and carers use complementary and alternative therapies. To date, there is not a great deal of high quality research into the treatment of dementia with complementary and alternative therapies, although there are some small but rigorous studies looking at aromatherapy, music therapy and dietary supplements. As with any health intervention, a specially trained practitioner and a doctor's advice should always be sought.

What the Society calls for

  • More research into all types of treatments for dementia, including complementary and alternative therapies. There is a high level of unmet need among people with dementia and few treatments available. Because of their perceived benefits and image as safe and natural, many people with dementia and carers use complementary and alternative therapies. There is, however, little high-quality research into the treatment of dementia with complementary and alternative therapy, although research on a number of therapies is providing some interesting preliminary results. The UK needs a national and long-term plan for dementia research that it is funded in proportion to its impact on society and with greater co-ordination between funders of dementia research. This should include alternative and complementary therapies. For more information, please see our position statement on dementia research. 
  • Further evaluation of the effectiveness, safety and cost of complementary and alternative therapies in a similar way to conventional treatments. NICE, the government body responsible for recommending which drugs should be available on the NHS, has recommended the use of complementary and alternative medicines in a limited number of circumstances, including recommending the Alexander Technique for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. More alternative and complementary therapies should be assessed, on the basis of the available scientific evidence, for clinical and cost-effectiveness. 
  • People with dementia and carers to be signposted to accurate information and guidance on using complementary and alternative therapies. There are a large number of complementary and alternative therapies. As with all treatments, people with dementia and carers need detailed information about the relative side-effects and possible benefits. For more information, please see our position statement on drugs for the treatment of dementia.   

References and further information

  • Birks J, Grimley Evans J, Van Dongen M, 2003, Ginkgo Biloba for Cognitive Impairment and Dementia (Cochrane Review), The Cochrane Library, Issue 4. Chichester , UK : John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  • Alzheimer's Society Factsheet, 2003, Complementary and alternative medicine and dementia, London
  • Burns A et al, 2002, Sensory stimulation in dementia. BMJ 325(7376):1312-3
  • Viggo Hansen N, Jørgensen T, Ørtenblad L, 2006, Massage and touch for dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4.
  • Malouf R, Grimley Evans J, Areosa Sastre A, 2003, Folic acid with or without vitamin B12 for cognition and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4.
  • Birks J, Grimley Evans J, Lee H, 2002, Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4.
  • Isaac M, Quinn R, Tabet N, 2000, Vitamin E for Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4.
  • Ballard CG et al, 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, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 63: 553-558.
  • McCarney et al, 2008, Ginkgo biloba for mild to moderate dementia in a community setting: a pragmatic, randomised, parallel-group, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Vol 23, Issue 12, 1222-1230.

Last updated: October 2014 by Laurence Thraves

Think this page could be useful to someone? Share it:

Further reading