The U.S. population is getting older, and as it ages, Alzheimer's disease is becoming an increasingly bigger concern. Within the next 50 years, the incidence of Alzheimer's is expected to quadruple, affecting one in 45 Americans.
Today, there is still no cure for Alzheimer's. People with the disease progressively lose memory and the ability to function. Researchers are still trying to fully understand how its brain plaques and tangles lead to memory loss and other cognitive, behavioral and psychiatric symptoms -- and how to reverse those changes to prevent or stop the disease.
The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease often come on gradually. They then typically progress over several years to the point of causing major impairment.
Alzheimer's can be divided into mild, moderate, or severe stages. Each stage has a separate set of symptoms. But symptoms can vary from person to person. And the length of each stage can also vary.
However, there are treatments available today that can help patients manage the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, allowing them to function at a higher level for a longer period of time. Alzheimer's therapy involves a number of different treatments that address each of these problems. Because symptoms change over time, doctors need to adjust their Alzheimer's patients' therapies as new problems emerge.
Alzheimer's Disease Medications
Several different types of medications are used to treat the memory loss, behavior changes, sleep problems, and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. These medications won't stop the disease, but they can slow down the progression of symptoms for a few months or even years. All of these medications can have side effects, which can be even more pronounced in older people.
Four medications in two classes are FDA-approved specifically for Alzheimer's therapy:
Antipsychotic medications, such as aripiprazole (Abilify), haloperidol (Haldol), and olanzapine (Zyprexa), treat hallucinations, delusions, agitation, and aggression. It's important to note that some antipsychotic drugs have been linked to an increased risk of death in patients with dementia, and currently carry the FDA's "black box" warning about their use in older patients with dementia. They can, however, still be necessary and helpful to many patients.
Other Alzheimer's Therapies
It has been suggested that some non-drug therapies also can help Alzheimer's patients cope with the symptoms of the condition.
Vitamin E. Vitamin E has been researched as a therapy for Alzheimer's disease, because it is an antioxidant that was thought to protect nerve cells from damage. However, many doctors no longer recommend vitamin E, because there is little scientific evidence that it is effective.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Some studies have suggested that postmenopausal women who are taking hormone replacement therapy have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. The female hormone, estrogen, is thought to help nerve cells make connections, and interfere with the production of beta amyloid -- a protein that is the main component in the plaques that lead to Alzheimer's disease. However, more recent research has found no improvement with HRT, and one study even suggested that estrogen use might actually increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's rather than protect against it. HRT also may increase the risk for heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer.