July 2013

Aromatherapy and Hand Massage Studied for Dementia Symptoms

Aromatherapy and hand massage may lack effect on disruptive behavior of people with dementia, a study reports.

Dementia refers to a loss of cognitive function (an intellectual process resulting in an understanding, perception, or awareness of one's thoughts and ideas). Dementia can be caused by changes in the brain such as those associated with disease or trauma. The changes may occur gradually or quickly. Cognition is the act or process of thinking, perceiving, and learning. Cognitive functions that may be affected by dementia include decision making, judgment, memory, spatial orientation, thinking, reasoning, and verbal communication. Dementia may also result in behavioral and personality changes, depending on the area(s) of the brain affected.

Dementia is actually a word for a group of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. It is not a specific disease. Individuals with dementia may not be able to think well enough to do normal activities, such as getting dressed or eating. They may lose the ability to solve problems or control emotions and their personalities may change. These individuals may become agitated or hallucinate.

Aromatherapy and hand massage therapies have been evaluated for possible benefit in people with dementia. Aromatherapy is a technique in which essential oils from plants are used with the intention of preventing or treating illness, reducing stress, or enhancing well-being. Fragrance oils and products containing man-made compounds are not used in the practice of genuine aromatherapy. Although many gift shops sell scented candles, pomanders, and potpourri as "aromatherapy," genuine aromatherapy treatments use higher strength (concentrated) essential oils drawn from various herbs. Massage is a broad term encompassing a variety of approaches to the manipulation of soft tissue to achieve health benefits. Massage techniques have been practiced for thousands of years in many cultures. Practitioners primarily use their hands but may also use their forearms, elbows, or even their feet in some methods. Lubricants are often added to reduce friction and discomfort during the application of massage techniques.

In the current study, the authors set out to investigate the effect of aromatherapy using 3 percent lavender oil spray with or without hand massage in people with dementia and disruptive behaviors. They included 67 subjects in the trial who were divided into three groups: aromatherapy and hand massage, aromatherapy alone, and placebo (a water spray), each given twice daily over a six-week period.

The results suggested that participants in all groups displayed a downward trend in disruptive behaviors. However, the research team reported that significant reductions were lacking for all interventions.

The authors concluded that further studies are needed in order to better understand the potential effects of aromatherapy in this population.

Many other integrative therapies have been evaluated for possible benefit in people with dementia or related conditions. There is strong scientific evidence supporting the use of ginkgo and caffeine for this purpose.

For more information about aromatherapy, please visit Natural Standard's Health & Wellness Database.


  1. Fu CY, Moyle W, Cooke M. A randomised controlled trial of the use of aromatherapy and hand massage to reduce disruptive behaviour in people with dementia. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 Jul 10;13(1):165. [Epub ahead of print] 
  2. Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. 

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