Improve Cognitive Functioning: Aromatherapy and Dementia

Explore the benefits of using aromatherapy with essential oils for individuals diagnosed with dementia. Learn about the positive effects of lavender and lemon balm on challenging behaviors and sleep, and how to properly introduce aromatherapy in different forms for care partners.

Improve Cognitive Functioning: Aromatherapy and Dementia
Aromatherapy and dementia

Aromatherapy and Dementia: Benefits of Scents Can Improve Cognitive Functioning and Calm

Aromatherapy, use plant essential oils for medicinal purposes. the benefits have been studied and the benefits recorded for thousands of years. These oils have long been used to promote a sense of well-being. Or to address a variety of different medical conditions.  Until recently, there was very little research done regarding the use of aromatherapy… with individuals diagnosed with dementia.

There has been an increased interest and many clinical trials using aromatherapy.

These studies principally used either:

lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or Lavandula officinalis)

Or lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

along with a control group of no treatment.

The clinical studies showed a significant impact on negative behaviors… in the individuals with dementia. The good news is there were negligible side-effects.

More on how to improve cognitive functioning…

There is still not enough evidence to recommend the widespread use of aromatherapy… for physicians to recommend in their clinical practice.  It is a simple treatment that family care partners may want to try at home. As an alternative with behavioral approaches… before trying medications that may cause side effects or sedate your family member.

For those family care partners that are aware that the family member with dementia has lost their sense of smell… there is good news. Even though the person with dementia has lost the sense of smell (anosia)… the effects of the essential oils are thought to be due to the compounds of the plant oils entering the body… through the nose or lungs… acting directly on the brain. The compounds enter the bloodstream by absorption through the lungs… or the lining of the nose.

There are different essential plant oils… which have, a molecular make up that easily crosses the blood- brain barrier.

Several plant species, such as:

  • Lemon balm
  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Bergamot
  • Neroli

Valerian… have been used in aromatherapy. Specifically because it has long been believed to have beneficial effects… on mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. For those diagnosed with dementia… lavender and lemon balm are purported to have sedative … and/or cognitive enhancing properties.  Recent neurochemical and clinical studies are supporting these enhancing properties.

Lavender and lemon balm has been used in multiple studies… and in different delivery. Applying cream with the oil and giving a massage, on pillows and in a room freshener. The studies have found that there have been positive responses to in those with dementia … that have difficulty with sleep and exhibit challenging behaviors such as agitation.

The participants in one study had a massage with oils to the arms and face 5 to 8 times a day. This is a study that used the oils along with the power of touch to decrease the challenging behaviors.

There are other studies that utilize the power of ambient streams of the essential oils… as the only vehicle for the delivery of the oils. There is not enough information to suggest that this method alone is effective.

If you are a family care partner and want to explore the use of aromatherapy… to promote sleep, decrease challenging behaviors or promote improvement in cognition… there is a list of studies that you may want to review.

Never overpower the room with a scent, as it may be unpleasant to the person with dementia. Take time and introduce aromatherapy in different forms:

  • Oils in skin cream
  • Massage oils
  • In room burners
  • Or on a tissue inside a pillow

Take time to document what and when you provide a treatment and document the effects. Be consistent. Give a treatment a period of time before discontinuing. Unless there are adverse reactions. If an adverse reaction does occur, stop treatment immediately and document the reaction. Put this information in the medical history in the allergies section.

Please feel free to share… any positive or negative responses with us on

Gray, S. G. & Clair, A. A. (2002) Influence of aromatherapy on medication administration to residential-care residents with dementia and behavioural challenges. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 17, 169–174.

Holmes, C., Hopkins, V., Hensford, C., et al (2001) Lavender oil as a treatment for agitated behaviour in severe dementia. International Journal of Psychogeriatric Psychiatry, 17, 305–308.

Ludvigson, H. W. & Rottmann, T. R. (1989) Effects of ambient odors of lavender and cloves on cognition, memory, affect and mood. Chemical Senses, 14, 525–536.

MacMahon, S. & Kermode, S. (1998) A clinical trial of the effects of aromatherapy on motivational behaviour in a dementia care setting using a single subject design. Australian Journal of Holistic Nursing, 52, 47–49.

Rosen, J., Burgio, L., Kollar, M., et al (1994) The Pittsburgh

Agitation Scale: a user friendly instrument for rating agitation in dementia patients. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2, 52–59.

Smallwood, J., Brown, R., Coulter, F., et al (2001) Aromatherapy and behaviour disturbances in dementia: a randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 16, 1010–1013.

Vance, D. (1999) Considering olfactory stimulation for adults with age-related dementia. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 88, 398–400.

Smallwood, J., Brown, R., Coulter, F., et al (2001) Aromatherapy and behaviour disturbances in dementia: a randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 16, 1010–1013.

Vance, D. (1999) Considering olfactory stimulation for adults with age-related dementia. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 88, 398–400.

Wake, G., Court, J., Pickering, A., et al (2000) CNS acetylcholine receptor activity in European medicinal plants traditionally used to improve failing memory. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 69, 105–114.

West, B. J. M. & Brockman, S. J. (1994) The calming power of aromatherapy. Journal of Dementia Care, 2 (March/April), 20–22.

Wolfe, N. & Herzberg, J. (1996) Can aromatherapy oils promote sleep in severely demented patients? International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 11, 926–927.

Yamada, K., Mimaki, Y. & Sashida, Y. (1994) Anticonvulsive effects of inhaling lavender oil vapour. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 17, 359–360.

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