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Essential Oils and Cognitive Function

Research carried out in 2022 by University College London found that cognitive decline in older people has more than doubled in 10 years. The study showed that whilst the number of people reporting concerns about their memory had remained stable, the number of people found to have cognitive decline, a step beyond memory concern, had more than doubled between 2009 and 2018. To read more, click here.

There is however new evidence from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, that being exposed to certain aromas during the night can improve cognitive performance by strengthening neural pathways that play an important role in learning and memory. To read more, click here.

The Hypothesis

It has long been known that enrichment benefits animals and it is a key part of modern animal husbandry. There is also evidence showing that aroma enrichment improves brain function and behaviour in animals. In humans, studies have shown that exposure to varied aromas changes brain anatomy and can restore the sense of smell following infection or illness, so there is a clear link between aroma enrichment and changes in the brain in both animals and humans.

On a less positive note it has been found that general age-related loss of smell in humans causes significant loss of grey and white matter in the brain and can also precede more serious cognitive impairment. Based on these conclusions, the California researchers saw an opportunity to investigate a simple, effective and low-cost way to improve cognitive performance, and in this case one that uses essential oils.

The Study

Previous research suggested the more aromas people are exposed to the better however the researchers chose to test only 7 so that the method would be of practical use to older people in their daily lives. 20 volunteers between the ages of 60 and 85 were given 7 different essential oils to use in a diffuser:

A further 19 volunteers in the same age group were given a ‘dummy’ which contained distilled water and only trace amounts of aroma. They were able to smell the aromas before beginning of the study and rate them on pleasantness and intensity.

Participants were asked to use the diffuser for 2 hours each night for 6 months, rotating through the different oils they had been given. They were assessed using neuropsychological tests at the start of the study to establish their baseline level of performance, and again at the end of the 6 months along with MRI scans.

The Result

The result was a statistically significant 226% improvement in the performance of the ‘enriched’ group compared to the control group. Quite a staggering result for a simple activity that most people can do at home, and not only that, will enjoy!

If you want to read the full text or do some further investigation, here is the link again, containing references to all the studies mentioned.