As part of my role in the Neuroscience, Engagement, and Smart Tech (NEST) Lab at Neuroethics Canada, I conducted a review of non-pharmacological interventions for mental health in people living with dementia. What are these non-pharmacological interventions, and why are researchers so interested in studying them?
Among the 50 million people worldwide with a diagnosis of dementia, roughly 32% (16 million) report symptoms of depression (1). Within this group, half will have received a formal diagnosis of major depressive disorder. You may already be familiar with pharmacological or drug-based interventions for depression (e.g., antidepressants). However, in recent years, there has been a push for non-pharmacological treatment alternatives for people living with dementia.
Non-pharmacological treatments are defined as any activity or care plan to reduce symptoms of a given ailment. These interventions are often adjustable to accommodate the needs of the recipients, something traditional drug interventions lack.
The issues surrounding pharmacological treatments for depression
Various studies highlight some of the drawbacks surrounding the drug interventions commonly used to treat major depressive disorder. The findings of a 2013 study revealed that 69% of older adults from a data sample of 2 million received a prescription psychotropic without a formal psychiatric diagnosis (2). In addition, many were found to not be receiving any type of mental health specialty care (2).
These results come with caveats. Not being able to qualify for a diagnosis does not negate the existence of a medical need, nor does it address the social barriers individuals may face in obtaining a diagnosis. Experiencing symptoms can drastically impact a person’s physical health and overall quality of life (3). Symptoms are expressed in a multitude of ways (e.g., lethargy, insomnia, changes in appetite, feeling discouraged or unhappy) and in varying intensities (4). Depression manifests itself differently for each individual and depending on their given situation, clinical treatment may have been the best course of action.
Nevertheless, the study results suggest that the current implementation of clinical approaches to treating depression may not meet the desired standards of care (2). Also consider the high relapse rates of major depressive disorder in individuals exclusively using pharmacological therapies (5).
The efficacy of drug interventions for treating depression in people living with dementia has been challenged by various studies (6,7,8). Evidence indicates that antidepressants are associated with an increased risk of recurrent falls, whereas non-pharmacological care alternatives have the potential to be just as effective as drug treatments with fewer risks (6,7).
Certain psychological treatments can match the effectiveness of clinical approaches to mood disorders (4), and a few are somewhat more effective (6). Drug interventions alone can be an effective treatment method for many (5,6,7). However, we must also assess the ethical considerations surrounding limited catalogues of treatment options only optimal for a subset of individuals.
Thus, there is unexplored potential in the application of non-pharmacological interventions as both a supplement to drug treatments and as their own form of care.
Sociocultural and ethical considerations
The myriad of issues related to treatments for mental health in people living with dementia are complex. A discussion regarding healthcare disparities and the socioeconomic and cultural barriers to care could warrant a post of its own. Here, I will attempt to summarize a few.
- Stigma — There may be cultural stigma surrounding mental health and treatment (8,9). Individuals who inherit cultural values from their respective culture or community may not feel comfortable with western conventions of mental health. Thus, given how drug interventions are prescribed in Canada, pharmacological treatments may not be the most effective or accessible option.
- Economic factors — Prescription drug costs contribute to the inaccessibility of treatment. Canada is the only developed country with a universal healthcare system that does not cover the cost of prescription drugs. Older adults without private health insurance may be left in a difficult position (10).
- Location — Individuals living in rural or remote locations may face difficulty with filling their prescriptions over an extended period (11).
There are many more issues pertaining to the limitations of drug interventions in current healthcare models. Thus, there is value in exploring non-pharmacological treatment alternatives (6).
How non-pharmacological interventions for depression can be used
In recent years, there has been growing interest in social prescribing: the act of linking patients with non-drug interventions in their community (6). While non-profit organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Society of BC are unable to prescribe medication, they can provide low or no-cost services aiming to support mental health.
Implementing these non-pharmacological interventions can also be a quite simple. Some common, low-cost interventions that are easy to implement include:
- Reminiscence therapy — Remembering or sharing details about the past or previous positive events, either alone or with a group. Reminiscence therapy can improve quality of life, cognitive functions, and lower depression (12).
- Exercise — Exercising the body and the mind can reduce symptoms of depression and improve the overall quality of life (6).
- Music therapy — Listening to music regularly with a music therapist can improve symptoms of depression (13).
- Indoor Daylight Exposure —People living with dementia at a nursing home socialized with each other in an indoor setting with ample amounts of daylight each morning. Daylight exposure was found to significantly reduce symptoms of depression (14).
These interventions do not present as very psychological or medical in nature. By framing activities that may reduce symptoms of depression in an approachable, non-clinical manner, care providers could avoid the stigmas around treatment for mental health to encourage greater use of mental health services (15). However, this does not address the issues surrounding mental health perception and discourse. More research is needed to better understand how we can effectively tackle these stigmas.
Providing evidence-based, low-complexity care can also enable people living with dementia to form deeper bonds with their local community and create their own support network. The low cost of execution makes these interventions a great option for treating mild symptoms of depression.
Complex interventions that target more severe symptoms of depression and aim to create lasting effects also exist. These require a higher degree of training from providers and thus are more costly, but evidence highlights their value as potential treatment options (6, 16, 17, 18). Examples include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — Breaking down existing negative cognitions and replacing them with more positive functionally adaptive ones (16) can reduce symptoms of both depression and anxiety (6, 17, 18).
- Multidisciplinary care — A care plan developed in collaboration with multiple qualified healthcare providers can match the efficacy of drug treatments (6).
There are many other approaches: animal-assisted activities, psychotherapy, cognitive stimulation, and environmental modification, to name a few (6). Non-pharmacological interventions also have the advantage of being flexible and adjustable to one’s individual needs. For example, Shiatsu could be an interesting approach for people with dementia of East Asian descent.
- Shiatsu — A holistic complementary practice that draws on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. By applying pressure to certain pressure points, symptoms of depression were reduced when utilized in combination with exercise (19).
Many treatment options exist where traditional drug-based interventions are not appropriate. Individuals could develop a personalized care plan with careful guidance from a qualified medical professional.
There is still an important need for drug interventions. For a subset of the population, it remains quite effective (5,6).
The value in exploring various non-pharmacological treatments has much to do with the agency it gives the individual and how it makes mental health care more attainable to people of all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
Looking to the future
Non-pharmacological interventions may reduce the burden of depressive symptoms in older adults with dementia. Within the next few decades, the global population will continue to age and the number of people living with dementia is expected to increase to 152.8 million cases by 2050 (20). Thus, the need for programs supporting the well-being of older (and younger!) adults with dementia is greater than ever.
In neuroethics research, the way non-pharmacological interventions are received and their overall effectiveness can be studied to highlight healthcare disparities and bring insight into public discussions surrounding brain health and aging. This research may inform initiatives that aim to address the gap in services related to mental health in people living with dementia.
By deepening our understanding of how people living with dementia respond to non-pharmacological interventions, we can improve current treatment approaches and the standard of care. Every individual should have the option to receive the type of care that best suits their specific medical needs.
Special thanks to Dr. Julie Robillard and Viorica Hrincu from the NEST Lab for all their guidance and support in the last year!
Bio: Yu Fei Jiang is a 4th-year undergraduate student studying Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests primarily lie in the interaction between technology use in patient care and neuroscience research. She’s also very passionate about science communication and sharing knowledge with others. Outside of work, Yu Fei enjoys all things nerdy; you’ll probably find her either reading books of wildly different genres or playing video games late into the night.
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