Massage Matters

Mindful musings on massage, muscles, and moxie

The Knot Whisperer Rides!

The Knot Whisperer Rides!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Massage Can Quiet Some of Dementia's Demons

There are hardly any age-related conditions that cannot be improved with a weekly half-hour massage,” claims Sharon Puszko, owner of Day-Break Geriatric Massage Institute. Even a cursory look at current research on massage will verify the truth of that contention and, in fact, might suggest that there are few conditions, period, that wouldn’t be made better with massage. The value of massage as an intervention is especially high for conditions for which effective treatment continues to confound practitioners of conventional medicine, such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

The loss of memory and, sometimes, speechlessness that characterize these conditions are a source of frustration for all concerned, both those afflicted with the condition and their caretakers. For those actually suffering from this condition, however, the frustration can result in agitation, of both a verbal and physical nature. Traditionally, such agitation has been managed either chemically (that is, with medication) or physically, with restraints, but neither of these methods has been shown to be especially effective.

The past decade, however, is distinguished by an increased interest in studying alternative treatments, including massage, for managing symptoms of dementia. These studies have made use of salivary (measuring levels of a stress-related amino acid protein), psychometric, blood pressure, and observational measures to assess the effects of massage on people with dementia. The treatments generally involved soft massage or therapeutic touch to hands or feet for short periods of time (10–20 minutes), accompanied by, in at least one study, the inclusion of aromatherapy.

Massage, in all cases, was found to have one or more of the following effects on the symptoms typically exhibited by people with cognitive impairment:

o reduced stress level

o less wandering/pacing behavior

o reduced physical agitation/aggression

o reduced verbal agitation/aggression

o lowered pulse rate

o less inappropriate behavior

o less resistance to being cared for

Study of the effects of massage on those troubled with dementia is still relatively new, however, so it’s hard to know exactly how powerful the calming effects are. But the results are definitely promising. In the meantime—until more research has been conducted—since none of the existing studies have found massage to have any negative impacts on those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, massage seems like a useful nonpharmalogical tool for helping to cope with some of this impairment’s most disruptive symptoms.

Also, if you are inclined to believe the old adage An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure, listen up! A recent study found that those suffering from depression may nearly double their risk of developing dementia later in life. Lead author of the report, Jane Saczynski, says, “While it’s unclear if depression causes dementia, there are a number of ways depression might impact the risk of dementia. Inflammation of brain tissue that occurs when a person is depressed might contribute to dementia. Certain proteins found in the brain that increase with depression may also increase the risk of developing dementia. In addition, several lifestyle factors related to long-term depression, such as diet and the amount of exercise and social time a person engages in, could also affect whether they develop dementia.” But as I discussed in my article “Turn That Frown Upside Down: In a Massage Face Cradle,” massage has been found to help regulate some of the biological causes of depression.

Massage may also be able to intervene in the onset of dementia is helping individuals maintain their overall health: a study published this week in Neurology provides evidence that when small health problems are added up, a person’s risk for dementia increases. In fact, for each small complaint a person has as they age—from sinus issues to hearing problems and bad dental health—the risk for dementia increases by 3 percent. For instance, those who had no health complaints at the start of the study had an 18 percent risk of developing dementia over the next ten years, whereas someone with eight minor health complaints had a 30 percent risk and those with a dozen complaints showed an increased risk of 40 percent.

Massage, of course, can’t insure that someone won’t develop dementia. But given that massage has been shown to improve a variety of mental and physical health conditions, it can certainly be another tool in your arsenal to help maintain your health. So after you have that apple today to keep the doctor away, get on the phone and schedule a massage!


Hansen, N.V., T. Jørgensen, and L. Ørtenblad. 2006. “Massage and Touch for Dementia,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 4.

Hawranik, Pamela, Pat Johnston, and Judith Deatrich. 2008. “Therapeutic Touch and Agitation in Individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease,” Western Journal of Nursing Research, 30:417–34.

Holliday-Welsh, Diane M., Charles E. Gessert, Colleen M. Renier. 2009. “Massage in the Management of Agitation in Nursing Home Residents with Cognitive Impairment,” Geriatric Nursing, 30:108–17.

Moyle, Wendy, et al. 2011. “Exploring the Effect of Foot Massage on Agitated Behaviours in Older People with Dementia: A Pilot Study,” Australasian Journal on Ageing, April 26.

Puszko, Sharon. 2007. “The Marvelous Benefits of Geriatric Massage,”

Rowe M, Alfred D. 1999. “The Effectiveness of Slow-Stroke Massage in Diffusing Agitated Behaviours in Individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease,” Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 25:22–34.

Saczynski, J. S. 2010. “Depressive Symptoms and Risk of Dementia: The Framingham Heart Study,” Neurology, 75:35–41.

Smallwood, J., et al. 2001. “Aromatherapy and Behaviour Disturbances in Dementia: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” International Journal Geriatric Psychiatry, 16:1010–13.

Song, Xiaowei, Arnold Mitnitski, and Kenneth Rockwood. 2011. “Nontraditional Risk Factors Combine to Predict Alzheimer Disease and Dementia,” Neurology, 77:227–34.

Suzuki, Mizue, et al. 2010. “Physical and Psychological Effects of 6-Week Tactile Massage on Elderly Patients with Severe Dementia,” American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 25:680–86.