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Aromatherapy and Alzheimer's

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Cases of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease are on the rise, which of course we already know. But numbers are surprising. Nearly 20% of those over 80 suffer from dementia. Nearly half of those over 85 contract Alzheimer's Disease.

There are may early indicators of Alzheimer's Disease, and olfactory dysfunction is thought to be one of them. While aromatherapy is not a cure for the disease, smell and touch are powerful messengers and signals that can penetrate the "fog" of dementia and Alzheimer's in a way that words and other forms of communication or recognition cannot.

Many studies have been and are continuing to be done on the effects of specific essential oils used in aromatherapy and how they "connect" with those with dementia and Alzheimer's. Many of these studies have been done in institutional settings such as nursing homes. In 1995 a researcher by the name of Flanagan reported on one experiment used with a combative patient who required sedation injections for his own good and the good of care givers. He changed dramatically when a simple cotton ball with essential oil of lavender was pinned to his shirt. He improved to the point he no longer needed the injections.

It is suggested that there are two reasons for this. First of all, lavender's properties are very similar to diazepam, a sedative. The other possible explanation is that memories are very individual and memories connected to smells can be easily triggered. It is therefore thought that aromatherapy can help transport Alzheimer's patients to memories of their past, and at least in this case, offer a calming effect to the patient. As Flanagan reported, seeing facial expressions change from mask-like to smiles was feedback enough to know that something was happening.

In another example of the effects of aromatherapy on Alzheimer's patients, Dales Occupational Therapy Service in Derbyshire, United Kingdom has used aromatherapy to improve the life of those they care for. Essential oils that they find useful are pine, eucalyptus and peppermint. These trigger conversation and memory, and lavender and geranium seem to trigger thoughts of cooking.

It has been noted in many studies, especially in those connected with the elderly, that it is very important to allow patients - when possible - to choose their own aromas. Experimenting with various oils is needed to find those "triggers" that remind Alzheimer's patients of their past.

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