Alzheimer's Symptoms: Therapies That Can Help

Today, there is no cure for Alzheimer's. Researchers are still trying to fully understand how the disease leads to memory loss and other problems with thinking and behavior. They hope to one day reverse those changes to prevent or stop the disease.

But if you or a loved one has Alzheimer’s, there are treatments that can make a difference. Some therapies ease the symptoms and help people do better for longer. Because the disease’s effects change over time, people often need to have their treatments adjusted by the doctor, or they need to start new ones as different problems emerge.

Medications

Different types of drugs can treat memory loss, behavior changes, sleep problems, and other Alzheimer’s symptoms. They don’t stop the disease, but they can keep the problems from getting a lot worse for a few months or even years. All of them can have side effects, which can be more of a problem for older people.

Doctors may recommend one or more types of medicines depending on a person’s symptoms:

  • Doctors might prescribe medications to ease confusion, aggression, agitation or hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there). Options include aripiprazole (Abilify), haloperidol (Haldol), and olanzapine (Zyprexa). It's important to note that studies have linked some of these “antipsychotic drugs” to a higher risk of death for people with dementia. The FDA has placed a "black box" warning on these drugs describing these problems. They can be helpful for many people, though.

Other Therapies

Many people have explored other ways outside of medication to treat Alzheimer’s disease or handle its symptoms. The science on whether or not they work has been mixed.

Vitamin E. Scientists once thought this antioxidant might protect nerve cells from damage. But many doctors no longer recommend it for people with Alzheimer’s, because there’s little evidence that it works.

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Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). At one time, studies suggested that women who took hormone replacement therapy after menopause had a lower risk for Alzheimer's. The female hormone, estrogen, was thought to help nerve cells connect with each other, and keep the brain from making plaques that build up between brain cells. But more recent research found that HRT doesn’t help, and one study even showed that estrogen use might actually raise the risk of Alzheimer's rather than protect against it. HRT also may increase a person’s chances for heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer.

Art and music therapies. Some science shows that these treatments, which stimulate the senses, can improve mood, behavior, and day-to-day function for people with Alzheimer’s. Art and music may help trigger memories and help people reconnect with the world around them.

Supplements . Some people have tried alternative remedies, including coenzyme Q10, coral calcium, huperzine A, and omega-3 fatty acids to prevent or treat Alzheimer's disease. There’s not yet enough research to show if they do or don’t work.

The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements as it does medications, and the companies that make them don’t have to show if their products are safe or work before they can sell them. Some supplements also can cause dangerous side effects or keep other medications you take from working. Always talk to your doctor before you start using one.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on April 25, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Qaseem, A. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2008.

Alzheimer's Association web site: "Treatments."

National Institute on Aging web site: "Treatment."

Rabins, P.V. "Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias."

Kelley, B.J. Neurol Clin., 2007.

Hogan, D.B. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2008.

Helmuth, L. Science, Aug. 23, 2002.

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