DESK REVIEWS | Besides clinical standards or guidelines, is the use of traditional medicine and healers to manage or treat dementia common?

DESK REVIEW | Besides clinical standards or guidelines, is the use of traditional medicine and healers to manage or treat dementia common?

Yes, but mainly in rural and remote areas.

Mexico has a strong history of use of traditional medicine, based on different needs or services: pregnancy and deliveries, bone-healers, traditional medics. These traditions are a mix of pre-Hispanic indigenous cultures and beliefs, as well as the use of local herbs, remedies, etc., and the practices brought by the Spanish which have been widely documented (Lozoya X & Zolla, 1984). These practices are different between states and regions and their prevalence of use is highly correlated with higher percentage of rural population/localities, some of them presenting a wide diversity of “remedies”. For example, one of the first studies of traditional medicine practices in the State of Chiapas (southeast of the country) documented the use of 206 plants for a huge diversity of ailments and diseases such as stomach ache, burns, cough, wounds, head ache, tuberculosis, diabetes, diuretics, empacho (colloquial for indigestion) or verguenza (literal translation, shame) (Lozoya X & Zolla, 1984). Since these first studies, many more have documented the use of alternative or complementary medicine use in the country. Notwithstanding the fact that most likely some “remedies” are being used to manage or treat symptoms of dementia like memory loss, no information or published studies are identified on the use of these alternative practices to treat or manage dementia.


Lozoya X, & Zolla C. (1984). Medicina Tradicional en México. Boletín de La Oficina Sanitaria Panamericana (OSP), 96(4).

South Africa is a multi-cultural country with a myriad of beliefs and practices. The use of traditional medicine and healers is a socially accepted practice amongst some cultures in the country, with the belief that the cause of some conditions/diseases/misfortune (especially mental, emotional and neurological conditions) is social (Mkhonto & Hanssen, 2018). Traditional healers are believed to be able to diagnose and treat conditions caused by social misconduct, spirits, spells and witchcraft where biomedicine is unable to ‘identify’ and treat (Audet et al., 2017). Traditional healers speak the local languages of the person seeking help, they often live within close proximity, they are easily available for consultation and they are believed to spend more time explaining diagnoses, causes and treatments to patients – hence preferred over mainstream biomedical approaches or used in conjunction with bio-medicine (Audet et al., 2017). A review of studies on plants used to treat Alzheimer’s disease in South Africa has found the following plants used to treat memory loss in the form of aqueous or ethanol extracts (Stafford et al., 2008), (see p. 533 for more detail):

  • Malva parviflora (leaves),
  • Boophone disticha (L.f.) Herb. (leaves and bulbs),
  • Albizia adianthifolia (Schumach.) W. Wright (stem bark),
  • Albizia suluensis Gerstner (root bark) and
  • Crinum moorei f. (bulbs) for acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitory activity.

Audet, C. M., Ngobeni, S., Graves, E., & Wagner, R. G. (2017). Mixed methods inquiry into traditional healers’ treatment of mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders in rural South Africa. PLoS ONE, 12(2), 1–14.

Mkhonto, F., & Hanssen, I. (2018). When people with dementia are perceived as witches. Consequences for patients and nurse education in South Africa. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 27(1–2), e169–e176.

Stafford, G. I., Pedersen, M. E., van Staden, J., & Jäger, A. K. (2008). Review on plants with CNS-effects used in traditional South African medicine against mental diseases. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 119(3), 513–537.