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Non-Drug Therapies Can Treat Depression in Dementia

Non-drug therapies, such as exercise, appear to be as, or more, effective than drugs for reducing symptoms of depression in people with dementia, says a team of international researchers.

Doctors should consider more “social” prescribing of non-drug approaches for depression and loneliness, say international researchers.

Non-drug therapies, such as exercise, appear to be as, or more, effective than drugs for reducing symptoms of depression in people with dementia, suggests research published online in The BMJ.

The findings suggest that people with dementia will derive a clinically meaningful benefit from non-drug interventions, and the researchers say doctors should consider more “social” prescribing of non-drug approaches to treat symptoms of depression and loneliness.

Previous trials led the way

Fifty million people worldwide have a diagnosis of dementia.

About 16% of these people also have a diagnosed major depressive disorder, and 32% will experience symptoms of depression without a formal diagnosis.

Previous trials have shown that non-drug approaches, such as exercise, alleviate symptoms of depression in people with dementia, but it’s not clear how effective they are compared with drugs to reduce symptoms of depression.

Drugs alone not as effective

To address this uncertainty, researchers analysed the results of existing trials to compare the effectiveness of drug and non-drug interventions with usual care or any other intervention targeting symptoms of depression in people with dementia.

After screening 22,138 records, they focused on and reviewed 256 studies involving 28,483 people with dementia, with or without a diagnosed major depressive disorder.

Drug approaches alone were no more effective than usual care, but they found 10 interventions associated with a greater reduction in symptoms of depression compared with usual care.

Meta-analysis finds 10 interventions

The 10 interventions included cognitive stimulation, exercise, reminiscence therapy (a treatment to help people with dementia remember events, people and places from their lives), cognitive stimulation with a cholinesterase inhibitor (a drug used to treat dementia), massage and touch therapy, multidisciplinary care, psychotherapy combined with reminiscence therapy and environmental modification, occupational therapy, exercise combined with social interaction and cognitive stimulation, and animal therapy.

Three interventions — massage and touch therapy, cognitive stimulation with a cholinesterase inhibitor, and cognitive stimulation combined with exercise and social interaction — were found to be more effective than some drugs.


The authors acknowledge some study limitations, such as being unable to explore severity of depression symptoms or effects on different types of dementia. Nor did they look at the potential costs or harms of implementing drug and non-drug interventions.

However, notable strengths included the large number of articles reviewed and use of a recognised clinical scale for capturing symptoms of depression.

As such, they say in this systematic review, “non-drug approaches were associated with a meaningful reduction in symptoms of depression in people with dementia and without a diagnosis of a major depressive disorder.

And they add that everyone — patients, caregivers, clinicians and policy makers — have a role in translating these findings into practice.



  • Jennifer A Watt, Zahra Goodarzi, Areti Angeliki Veroniki, Vera Nincic, Paul A Khan, Marco Ghassemi, Yonda Lai, Victoria Treister, Yuan Thompson, Raphael Schneider, Andrea C Tricco, Sharon E Straus. Comparative efficacy of interventions for reducing symptoms of depression in people with dementia: systematic review and network meta-analysis. BMJ, 2021; n532 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.n532
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B. Berger

B. Berger

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This site was inspired by my Mom’s autoimmune dementia.

It is a place where we separate out the wheat from the chaffe, the important articles & videos from each week’s river of news. With a new post on Alzheimer’s or dementia appearing on the internet every 7 minutes, the site’s focus on the best information has been a help to many over the past 15 years. Thanks to our many subscribers for your supportive feedback.

The site is dedicated to all those preserving the dignity of the community of people living with dementia.

Peter Berger, Editor


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