Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of essential oils derived from plants. The oils are generally:
•Applied directly to the skin, often accompanied by massage
•Heated in an oil burner to produce a pleasant odour
•Placed in a bath.
The oils are concentrated and should be used according to instructions - they should be diluted before being applied to the skin, for example.
Research funded by the Mental Health Foundation in 2000 highlighted the potential benefits of aromatherapy, specifically the use of melissa officinalis, or lemon balm, in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers at Newcastle University's Medicinal Plant Research Centre believe that lemon balm may help prevent the loss of the key brain chemical acetylcholine. The loss of this chemical is one of the changes associated with Alzheimer's. Lemon balm may then work in the same way as the first generation of drugs for Alzheimer's disease, Aricept and Exelon.
This research suggests that aromatherapy may have a more specific role in the treatment of Alzheimer's than aiding relaxation. It highlights the need for further research.
In 2002, a paper by Alistair Burns in the British Medical Journal added weight to the potential benefits of aromatherapy for people with dementia, used as an alternative to neuroleptic drugs.
There are many different types and schools of massage in existence, but common to them all is the tactile manipulation of the body's soft tissue using the direct contact of the practitioner.
There is some evidence that aromatherapy - either alone or in combination with massage - is effective in helping people with dementia to relax. One trial compared aromatherapy and massage, aromatherapy and conversation, and massage only. It found that excessive 'wandering' could be reduced by aromatherapy and massage in combination.
Another study investigated lavender oil on a hospital ward, and showed a reduction in agitated behaviour. The benefits of aromatherapy and massage and expressive physical touch (which generally includes gentle massage) have also been reported, although one review of a number of studies reported inconclusive findings.