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Aromatherapy treatment for the management of agitation in severe dementia

15 Aug

Researchers at Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle General Hospital in the U.K. conducted a placebo-controlled trial to determine the value of aromatherapy with essential oil of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) for agitation in people with severe dementia. Seventy-two people residing in National Health Service (U.K.) care facilities who had clinically significant agitation associated with severe dementia were randomly assigned to aromatherapy with Melissa essential oil (N = 36) or placebo (sunflower oil) (N = 36).

The active treatment or placebo oil was combined with a base lotion and applied to patients'' faces and arms twice a day by caregiving staff. Changes in clinically significant agitation (Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory [CMAI]) and quality of life indices (percentage of time spent socially withdrawn and percentage of time engaged in constructive activities, measured with Dementia Care Mapping) were compared between the 2 groups over a 4-week period of treatment.

Seventy-one patients completed the trial. No significant side effects were observed. Sixty percent (21/35) of the active treatment group and 14% (5/36) of the placebo-treated group experienced a 30% reduction of CMAI score, with an overall improvement in agitation (mean reduction in CMAI score) of 35% in patients receiving Melissa balm essential oil and 11% in those treated with placebo (Mann-Whitney U test; Z = 4.1, p < .0001).

Quality of life indices also improved significantly more in people receiving essential balm oil (Mann-Whitney U test; percentage of time spent socially withdrawn: Z = 2.6, p = .005; percentage of time engaged in constructive activities: Z = 3.5, p = .001). The study concludes that aromatherapy with essential balm oil is a safe and effective treatment for clinically significant agitation in people with severe dementia, with additional benefits for quality of life.

Citation: Ballard CG, O'Brien JT, Reichelt K, Perry EK. 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, 2002, Jul;63(7):553-8.

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award