No one wants to receive a dementia diagnosis. Whether you, your parents, your partner, or someone else you love has dementia, there are steps you can take to lessen the blow. While dementia does not have a cure, there are many ways you can slow down disease progression and improve quality of life.
At-home approaches include lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, good nutrition, maintaining an active social life, doing activities that challenge the mind, and getting a good night’s sleep, among others. In this post, we discuss 12 ways to treat dementia at home.
To further boost your loved one’s chances of delaying symptoms, we recommend a combination of physical exercise and cognitive therapy. This approach — which we offer at our clinic, Neural Effects — is an evidence-based way to influence cognition and behavior positively in early-stage dementia.
Neural Effects uses the latest evidence-based techniques to stimulate the areas of your brain that need the most help. We are located in Provo, Utah, and serve anyone in Salt Lake City or the Utah valley area. We are in network for most types of medical insurance. Schedule your evaluation today.
12 Ways to Treat Dementia at Home
Dementia is a medical condition that causes loss of nerve cells, affecting memory, concentration, executive thinking, and other cognitive abilities. It may also cause anxiety, paranoia, behavioral issues, and changes in personality.
It’s not a single disease, but an umbrella term that includes several types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and frontotemporal dementia.
Although it was first described over 100 years ago and obviously existed before that, there is still no treatment available for this debilitating disease. Some prescription drugs, such as galantamine, rivastigmine, or memantine, can ease symptoms for a while, but they don’t stop the progression of the disease in the brain.
Caregivers often look for alternative therapies and natural treatment options that can be done at home to ensure a better quality of life for their patients. These treatments typically focus on delaying cognitive decline, but some also address other symptoms associated with dementia, such as poor sleep or depression.
- The best diets for dementia patients
- Which dietary supplements are backed by science
- Exercise recommendations
- How to get better sleep
- The importance of stress reduction
- How to challenge the brain
- Why social interaction is so important
- Why proper oral hygiene is key for good health in dementia patients
- When to consider acupuncture
- The benefits of aromatherapy and massage
- When bright light therapy can help
- The effects of music therapy
Suggestion 1: A Balanced Diet
For patients with dementia, a healthy and balanced diet is a solid start to improve cognitive function and slow down the progression of the disease. This improvement most likely results from improving blood flow and reducing oxidative stress in the brain via diet changes.
One example of a healthy diet for the brain is the MIND diet, which emphasizes green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, fish, and poultry while avoiding red meat, dairy products, sweets, and fried food. Studies show that following this diet is associated with a slower decline in cognition equivalent to being 7.5 years younger.
The Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet are also good choices for dementia patients, as both encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables and the avoidance of sugary treats and processed food.
Suggestion 2: Dietary Supplements (Talk to Your Doctor about Them)
There are a growing number of herbal remedies and dietary supplements promoted as memory enhancers or treatments to delay progression of dementia.
However, if you’re caring for a loved one with dementia, it’s not always easy to decide which ones to choose. Claims about the beneficial effects of these products are often based on a small number of studies, and many offer contradictory advice. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require the same rigorous process for supplements that is needed for the approval of a new prescription drug. As a result, it can be virtually impossible to determine if and how effective these dietary supplements really are at prevention of dementia or reducing symptoms.
According to the NIH, you can turn to these three independent organizations to make sure a product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants:
None of these organizations can guarantee that the supplement you’re taking is safe and effective.
All that said, there are a handful of supplements with more evidence than the others; we’ve listed them along with study results in the following sections. That said, we always recommend that patients consult with their neurology or primary care doctor first before starting on any supplements. It’s also important to check that these supplements do not interact with prescribed medications.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid involved in numerous mechanisms in the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most widely used supplements in the world, with proven results to prevent or delay cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and ADHD, among others.
Some studies found that people who eat fish on a regular basis (a major source of dietary DHA) experience a slower rate of cognitive decline and are less likely to have memory loss. Similarly, DHA supplementation can benefit dementia patients, especially during the early stages of the disease.
But, some research says the opposite. The varying results in studies are likely due to several factors — omega-3’s appear to be more effective in earlier stages, different doses may have different efficacies, and genetic differences may come into play as well.
If you want to try it, then good sources of DHA include dark meat fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. DHA supplements are usually made from fish oil or algae.
Some research also suggests that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is anti-inflammatory and may be worth consideration.
Vitamin D — which comes from food or via our skin when stimulated by sunlight — is essential for brain development. Low vitamin D3 levels are a risk factor for various cognitive diseases, including dementia.
There are a few small studies suggesting that vitamin D3 supplementation may improve some aspects of cognitive function, but it’s too early to say unequivocally that this vitamin helps disease progression in dementia patients.
Supplementation is usually safe, but taking too much may increase calcium levels in the blood and cause nausea, vomiting, confusion, and heart rhythm abnormalities. It’s important to consult with your healthcare provider before starting to take vitamin D3 supplements, especially for patients with overactive kidney and liver disease, diabetes, and hypotension.
Vitamins B6, B9, and B12
Vitamins of the B complex — including B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), and B12 (cobalamin) — are involved in many functions in the body. They are particularly important to control levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. This amino acid is typically high in people over 65 and is associated with strokes, coronary artery disease, and dementia.
Clinical trials of vitamin B supplementation found a small improvement in some cognitive functions for patients with mild cognitive impairment, especially for those with high levels of homocysteine, but no long-term benefits for patients with severe dementia. That said, this paper suggests adequate B9 and B12 intake correlate with better cognitive performance in immediate and delayed memory recall, categorical verbal fluency, processing speed, sustained attention, and working memory among elders.
Vitamin B supplements are safe for most people when taken at recommended doses, but they may interact with some prescription drugs.
Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that protects cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals. The brain is very susceptible to oxidative stress, which is often considered a major factor contributing to cognitive decline.
Despite this, the evidence to support the use of vitamin E supplementation is contradictory: Some clinical trials found no effect on cognitive function, while others noticed that patients with mild forms of dementia experienced a slower decline in their ability to carry out daily tasks.
When it comes to vitamin E, a healthy diet with plenty of green leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds, and almonds is likely to offer the most benefit. Vitamin E is also available as over-the-counter pills or chewable tablets.
Panax ginseng is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The roots contain a compound called ginsenoside, which works as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.
This product has been shown in randomized trials to improve dementia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart failure. But the review authors cautioned that “most trials had biases or unknown biases and so most evidence is of low quality.” It’s worth noting that, in this study, any improvements disappeared when the patient stopped taking the supplements.
Panax ginseng is generally safe, but it may cause insomnia, rapid heartbeat, and high blood pressure in high doses or when combined with other medications.
Coconut oil and medium-chain triglycerides
Medium-chain triglycerides are a naturally occurring source of fats abundant in coconut oil. These fats are readily used by the brain as an energy source.
Studies show that supplementation may provide some relief for dementia patients, but these benefits are short-lived and disappear once supplementation stops.
Although these supplements are generally considered safe, gastrointestinal side effects are common.
Huperzine A is derived from several species of firmoss plants. It’s believed it can increase the levels of neurotransmitters and promote brain function.
Most trials reported meaningful improvements in cognitive function, but these studies involved a small number of participants. In addition, because huperzine A works in a similar manner to some Alzheimer’s drugs, it is unlikely to benefit patients who already take these drugs. Notably, huperzine A showed beneficial effects for Alzheimer’s patients but not in patients with vascular dementia or MCI.
Huperzine A is available as a dietary supplement. It seems safe for short-term use, but evidence for long-term safety is lacking.
Curcumin is one of the most important components of turmeric and is used extensively in Asian medicine.
Although it’s often marketed as a way to protect the brain against dementia, the clinical evidence for curcumin’s efficacy is lacking. Although people who eat more curcumin (in curries and other recipes) seem to have improved cognitive function, a study using curcumin supplements failed to show any benefit.
The main source of curcumin is turmeric, but curcumin supplements are also commercially available.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), also known as ubiquinone, is an antioxidant that your body can produce naturally.
The fact that levels of CoQ10 decrease with age make it a good candidate to help dementia patients. However, clinical is limited. Not only are blood levels of CoQ10 similar in people with and without cognitive problems, but a clinical trial with patients with Alzheimer’s disease failed to show any cognitive benefits after four months of supplementation. So far, the only positive results have been in studies on rodents.
CoQ10 can be found in certain foods like oily fish, whole grains, and fruit. CoQ10 supplements are widely available over the counter.
Ginkgo biloba has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries.
In clinical trials, ginkgo biloba showed mixed results: Some studies reported that, in combination with conventional medication, Ginkgo biloba can help cognitive performance, while others suggested it was inconsistent and unreliable. That said, research on a specific extract of ginkgo — EGb 761 — has shown promise in multiple studies. It resulted in improvement in behavioral and psychological symptoms caused by dementia (and consequently improved caregiver distress as well).
Ginkgo biloba is safe for most patients, but it’s not advised for patients taking medication for high blood pressure.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in red wine, grapes, berries, chocolate, and peanuts.
It may help some patients with dementia, but further research is needed. One study detected some improvements regarding the ability to complete daily tasks but no effect on cognition or executive function.
Resveratrol supplements are safe for most patients in the short-term, but long-term use has not been studied.
Zinc with Vitamin C
Another helpful supplement could be zinc combined with vitamin C. Zinc is an important resource for neurotransmission and vitamin C has a synergistic relationship with zinc. Vitamin C supports synaptic activity and detoxification in the brain.
One study showed that the pair improved attention and may help prevent worsening of dementia symptoms. The authors recommended 10-30 mg/day of zinc with 130-500 mg/day of Vitamin C for dementia patients.
Suggestion 3: Exercise
A growing body of evidence suggests that patients with dementia can benefit both physically and mentally from physical exercise.
Physical activity — especially aerobic exercise — promotes the release of a chemical in the brain (and in serum and plasma) called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This compound promotes connections between brain cells and is essential for learning and long-term memory.
Levels of BDNF naturally drop in older adults, but dementia patients have dangerously low levels of BDNF. Studies show that boosting levels of BDNF with exercise can improve cognitive function (including attention and executive function in MCI and Alzheimer’s disease), mood, and behavior, as well as promote fitness and reduce the risk of falls.
Whether it’s participating in an organized sport or any other physical activity, like walking, dancing, or gardening, encourage your loved one to stay active as long as possible. We recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day, five to seven days per week, as part of your treatment of dementia.
Suggestion 4: Good Sleep Patterns
Sleep disturbances are a common side effect of dementia and usually make symptoms worse.
The best way to help these patients is to establish good sleep hygiene. Set a peaceful and relaxing mood in the evening. You can help your loved one by reading aloud or playing soothing music. Make sure their bedroom is at a comfortable temperature. Do your best to set a consistent sleep schedule, being mindful of how much sleep they need (as little as four hours to as many as eleven hours depending on the patient). Restrict naps to 20 minutes or less as these can greatly disrupt the sleep cycle; it’s better to avoid them altogether if possible.
It also helps to avoid caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee, especially in the afternoon and evening, and to limit daytime naps.
If sleepless nights are a common occurrence, check their medication. Cholinesterase inhibitors, for example, which are prescribed for dementia patients, can cause insomnia. In this case, administering the medication earlier in the day rather than in the evening often helps, but it’s important to check with your doctor before making any changes.
Another option to consider is melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone involved in regulating sleep-wake cycles. As we get older, our bodies naturally produce less melatonin, and this is particularly exacerbated in dementia patients. Taking melatonin doesn’t slow down disease progression or improve cognitive function, but it can help some patients get a better night’s sleep.
Melatonin is available over-the-counter as liquid, pill, or a transdermal patch. For the patients who want to try it, start with a low dose (under 5 mg) about 30 minutes before bed, then increase the dose if needed.
Finally, make sure that any physical illnesses that might impact sleep — such as gastric reflux and heartburn, respiratory diseases, itchiness, chronic pain, and so forth — are addressed. Psychological illnesses such as depression and anxiety can impact sleep quality as well.
Suggestion 5: Stress Reduction
Given the symptoms patients experience, it’s not surprising that stress is a concern in dementia. These patients may be less able to advocate for themselves or to find ways to alleviate stress.
Mindfulness practices like tai chi, yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises can help reduce stress. Some studies even suggest that these mind-body interventions have a small impact on cognitive function, attention, and executive function in patients with mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
We suggest that our patients engage in meditation or breathing exercises twice a day and yoga at least once a week.
Suggestion 6: Challenge the Brain
One way to improve cognitive function in dementia patients is by keeping the brain active. Some studies have found that cognitive training with “brain games”, for example, can improve certain aspects of memory and thinking, as well as reduce anxiety and stress.
The activity needs to be something that the patient enjoys doing without getting frustrated. For example, if your loved one used to enjoy crosswords but is now starting to struggle, it may be better to choose a different game. It can be anything from reviving an old hobby to learning how to play a new musical instrument. Ideally, patients should engage in challenging brain activities at least 30 minutes daily.
It’s also very helpful to provide the patient with a regular daily structure including cognitive games, exercise, and socialization.
Suggestion 7: Increase (or Maintain) Social Interaction
Research shows that maintaining regular social contact with friends and family with a focus on what the patient likes to do improves the lives of those with dementia.
There are many ways to improve the quality of life of dementia patients, such as joining a new group, dance lessons, or simply reminiscing on cherished life events with friends and loved ones. You can also look into support groups (both for the patient and for caregivers).
Suggestion 8: Ensure Good Oral Hygiene
While maintaining good oral health is important for everyone, it is crucial for dementia patients. As a consequence of the deterioration in cognition and attention span, as well as poor motor skills needed to grip a toothbrush, dementia patients may find it difficult to maintain adequate oral care, resulting in dental issues like cavities.
But poor oral health isn’t just a consequence of dementia; bacteria from gum disease and oral infections have been linked to Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
To maintain good oral health, patients need to brush their teeth daily and visit a dentist on a regular basis. As the disease progresses, patients may need support from caregivers to maintain proper oral hygiene and other routine activities of daily living.
Suggestion 9: Acupuncture
Acupuncture is the practice of placing thin needles in the body at specific locations to promote a range of health improvements.
Studies show that dementia patients can benefit from this practice. Benefits include improved cognition and mood, better sleep, and increased ability to deal with activities in their daily lives.
Suggestion 10: Aromatherapy and Massage
Some studies support the idea that massage and aromatherapy can help dementia patients. For example, the use of lemon balm improves cognition and mood, and lavender oil reduces occurrences of aggressive behavior in dementia patients.
Suggestion 11: Bright Light Therapy
Bright light therapy has shown some promise in helping dementia patients, particularly with issues like poor sleep, restlessness, and anxiety.
Bright light therapy is easy to set up at home. All the patient needs to do is sit near a light therapy box, which emits light that mimics natural light. These can be purchased online and are not expensive. It’s believed that exposure to this light can help reset the patient’s internal clock and help dementia patients relax and sleep better.
Suggestion 12: Music Therapy
Music can “touch” the part of the brain where we hold our deepest memories, which is why it’s used as therapy for patients with dementia. This therapy has been shown to improve disruptive behaviors, reduce anxiety, and generally improve mental health and quality of life for dementia patients.
This is something that can easily be imitated at home. Pick something lively and up-tempo during the day to stimulate activity and something more relaxing in the evening as they prepare for bedtime.
Combine Physical Exercise and Cognitive Therapy at Neural Effects
One further option for dementia patients is to combine physical exercise and cognitive activities. This approach can improve attention, concentration, and cognitive function of patients living with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
This is the strategy we follow at Neural Effects. Close interactions with our therapists during treatment also ensure some socialization for the patients. Physical exercise, cognitive activities, and social interactions are recognized as the three most effective ways to prevent cognitive decline and improve the sense of self-worth for dementia patients.
To start the process, our patients must undergo a neuropsychological test (also called a neurocognitive evaluation) to determine what kind of cognitive issues are present.
This evaluation includes a series of tests to assess memory, attention, executive function, and language. We also assess patients for depression and anxiety. Once your assessment is done, we meet with you and your family members to discuss the results and suggest the best way forward.
If you decide to be treated at Neural Effects, our therapists can use a variety of different therapies based on the problems identified during your assessment. We can offer exercises targeting attention, memory, thinking skills, language, vision, and many more. All this is combined with sessions of aerobic exercise to boost the results.
You can bring a family member to the sessions to learn the exercises and help you at home, or you can continue to visit us for as long as you want. At the end of each session, our therapists will also give you a series of exercises to do at home to maximize your chances of delaying disease progression.
Early Diagnosis is Key to Effective Treatment
Getting diagnosed with dementia can be scary, but there are many benefits to having an early diagnosis. Many patients react with sadness and dismay, but it can also be a relief knowing what’s causing your symptoms.
Early diagnosis also enables a dementia patient to receive help to understand which stage of dementia they’re in and prepare for the future. This includes organizing personal finances, possibly changing living arrangements, and finding out what services are available to maintain quality of life as the disease progresses.
Diagnosis also rules out other conditions which can cause dementia-like symptoms. Symptoms of dementia can be caused by different conditions, such as infections, depression, nutritional deficiencies, and side effects from medication. The sooner your doctor can identify the cause of the symptoms, the sooner you can start with the right treatment.
There is some evidence to show that currently available treatments — including the therapy we offer at Neural Effects — are more effective if started during the early stages of the disease. This way, patients can maintain their quality of life and slow down cognitive decline for longer.
Contact us to schedule an appointment and determine if our treatment program is right for you. We offer both dementia evaluation and therapy. We are located in Provo, Utah, and serve anyone in Salt Lake City or the Utah Valley area. We are in network with most types of medical insurance.