Finding success with non-drug strategies: 3 common diseases and conditions that can benefit

The Bottom Line

  • Non-drug strategies can act as complements or alternatives to standard care.
  • Research shows that dementia, cancer, and frailty are diseases and conditions that may benefit from the use of various non-drug strategies.
  • Speak with your healthcare team about if and how you can safely adopt non-drug strategies into your treatment or prevention plans.  

Non-drug strategies, whether as alternatives or complements to standard care, continue to be of interest to researchers (1-3). Negative drug-related side effects and a lack of evidence to support the use of drug options in certain instances are just a few of the reasons why non-drug strategies may be recommended or even preferred (1-6). Click on the links below to learn more about several non-drug strategies that may be of help for three common diseases and conditions. 

1. Dementia

It is estimated that about 1 in 4 adults aged 85 and over have been diagnosed with dementia in Canada (7). Difficulty sleeping is a common issue in people living with dementia. It increases their risk of accidental falls and worsens cognitive issues and wandering. Research shows that various non-drug strategies—such as physical activities, social activities, approaches that involve caregivers, and multi-component strategies—may produce slight to moderate improvements in sleep in people living with dementia, compared to usual care (1).    

2. Cancer

Over their lifetime, 2 in 5 Canadians will receive a cancer diagnosis (8). The effects of cancer, treatments, and all that comes with such a diagnosis can result in physical and psychological impacts that reduce quality of life. These include depression, distress, fatigue, nausea, and difficulty sleeping (2;9-11). Research shows that combining music-based strategies with standard care may decrease anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue in adult cancer patients, compared to standard care on its own. Additionally, these strategies may also help boost hope and quality of life (2).

3. Frailty

Over 1.6 million older adults in Canada are medically frail (12). Individuals who are frail experience a decline in healthy or normal bodily function, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to negative health outcomes (3;13-18). Research shows that non-drug strategies such as physical activity (e.g., resistance training, mind-body exercises, mixed physical training, and aerobic training), nutritional supplementation, and multi-component approaches may help reduce frailty in older adults. However, physical activity, especially resistance training, appears to be the most effective strategy. In terms of safety, some non-drug strategies can lead to falls and injuries (3).

From dementia to frailty, non-drug strategies may have the potential to produce positive health impacts. That said, more high-quality research is needed to increase our confidence in these results, better understand any safety concerns, and determine optimal individual or combined strategies (1-3). Those interested in trying a non-drug strategy should first discuss all available options with their healthcare team before adopting them.

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Author Details


  1. Wilfling D, Calo S, Dichter MN, et al. Non-pharmacological interventions for sleep disturbances in people with dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023; 1:CD011881. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011881.pub2.
  2. Bradt J, Dileo C, Myers-Coffman K, et al. Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in people with cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021; 10:CD006911. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006911.pub4.
  3. Sun X, Liu W, Gao Y, et al. Comparative effectiveness of non-pharmacological interventions for frailty: A systematic review and network meta-analysis. Age and Ageing. 2023; 52(2):afad004. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afad004.
  4. McCleery J, Sharpley AL. Pharmacotherapies for sleep disturbances in dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020; 11:CD009178. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009178.pub4.
  5. Dent E, Morley JE, Cruz-Jentoft AJ, et al. Physical frailty: ICFSR International Clinical Practice Guidelines for Identification and Management. J Nutr Health Aging. 2019; 23:771-787.
  6. Dent E, Lien C, Lim WS, et al. The Asia-Pacific Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Frailty. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2017; 18:564-575.
  7. Canadian Institute for Health Information. Dementia in Canada: Summary. [Internet] 2023. [cited February 2024]. Available from:
  8. Canadian Cancer Society. Cancer statistics at a glance. [Internet] 2023. [cited February 2024]. Available from:
  9. King CR, Hinds BS. Quality of life from nursing and patient perspectives: Theory, research and practice. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2003.
  10. Massie MJ. Prevalence of depression in patients with cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst Monogr. 2004; 32:57-71. doi: 10.1093/jncimonographs/lgh014.
  11. Norton TR, Manne SL, Rubin S, et al. Prevalence and predictors of psychological distress among women with ovarian cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2004; 22(5):919-926. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2004.07.028.
  12. Canadian Frailty Network. Frailty matters. [Internet] 2024. [cited February 2024]. Available from:
  13. Fried LP, Tangen CM, Walston J, et al. Frailty in older adults: Evidence for a phenotype. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2001; 56:M146-57.
  14. Clegg A, Young J, Iliffe S, et al. Frailty in elderly people. Lancet. 2013; 381:752-762.
  15. Gilmour H, Ramage-Morin PL. Association of frailty and pre-frailty with increased risk of mortality among older Canadians. [Internet] 2021. [cited February 2024]. Available from:
  16. Hoogendijk EO, Afilalo J, Ensrud KE, et al. Frailty: Implications for clinical practice and public health. Lancet. 2019; 394:1365-1375.
  17. Kojima G, Iliffe S, Walters K. Frailty index as a predictor of mortality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Age Ageing. 2018; 47:193-200.
  18. Kojima G. Frailty as a predictor of disabilities among community-dwelling older people: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Disabil Rehabil. 2017; 39:1897-1908.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.