Complementary and alternative therapies and dementia
There are high levels of public interest in the various complementary and alternative therapies available today.
Many people with dementia, and those who care for them, are interested in using these therapies as alternatives or additions to their conventional treatments, often due to the perceived benefits that they may bring and the image of being ‘safe’ and
‘natural’. This factsheet explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, outlines several therapies for which there is some evidence of their effectiveness and describes how to access these treatments.
This factsheet only addresses therapies that have an evidence base and does not cover treatments for which there is no clinical evidence of effectiveness in dementia, even if they are widely used (such as homeopathy). What are complementary and alternative therapies? The term ‘complementary and alternative therapy’ covers many diverse forms of treatment.
Complementary and alternative therapies are a broad range of treatments that are outside of conventional medicine and are used to treat or prevent illness and promote health and well-being. Practitioners of complementary therapies are not trained to diagnose disease.
The area of complementary and alternative medicine is controversial and changes regularly. Therapies that are considered
‘complementary’ or ‘alternative’ in one country may be considered conventional in another. Therapies that are currently considered alternative may become more mainstream over time, as researchers discover their effectiveness and they become integrated into mainstream health care practice. Some complementary and alternative therapies are now available on the NHS, although this varies from region to region.
Using complementary and alternative therapy versus conventional medicine
Complementary and alternative therapy should only be used in addition to, not instead of, conventional medicine. If you decide to use complementary and alternative therapy it is important that you continue to see your doctor and keep them informed of the treatments you are having.
Although most complementary and alternative treatments have a good safety profile they are not 100 per cent safe and there are serious safety concerns about some therapies. For example, some herbal preparations may interact harmfully with conventional drugs.
It is therefore very important that your doctor knows exactly what you are taking.
Don’t be nervous about telling your doctor what you are using – awareness of complementary and alternative therapy is increasing among the medical profession, and most doctors are sympathetic to its use.
How widespread is complementary and alternative therapy? At least one in four people in England are thought to have used complementary or alternative therapy in the past year. In recent surveys, 85 per cent of medical students, 76 per cent of GPs and 69
per cent of hospital doctors have said they feel that complementary therapies should be made available on the NHS. This widespread interest helps to encourage research in the area.
One common concern is the difficulty in regulating such a varied range of treatments. Most forms of complementary and alternative therapy have one or more governing bodies, which set standards for the training and services provided and codes of conduct for practitioners.
However, these are often self-regulated and membership tends to be voluntary. A report by the House of Lords in 2000 called for more regulation, and research to investigate effectiveness and safety.
However, current regulation is still patchy.
In 2008 the Department of Health funded the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health to set up the Complementary and Natural
Healthcare Council to regulate 12 alternative therapies, such as aromatherapy, reflexology and homeopathy (see ‘Useful