Right now, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. Once a person starts showing signs – memory loss and problems with learning, judgment, communication, and daily life -- there aren’t any treatments that can stop or reverse them.
But there are medicines that can ease some of the symptoms in some people. They can slow down how quickly the disease gets worse, and help the brain work better for longer. It’s important to talk to your doctor about which option may work best for you.
How to Choose a Treatment
Your doctor will help you choose the best treatment based on a few things about you, including:
- Your age, overall health, and medical history
- How severe your disease is
- How well a medicine or therapy will work for you and your lifestyle
- Your preferences or those of your family or caregivers
What Medications Can Help?
The FDA has approved the drug aducanumab-avwa (aduhelm) as the first therapy that targets the fundamental pathophysiology of the disease by reducing amyloid beta plaques in the brain. It is not without controversy because of concerns it may cause swelling of bleeding in the brain.
Some drugs curb the breakdown of a chemical in the brain, called acetylcholine, that’s important for memory and learning. They may slow down how fast symptoms get worse for about half of people who take them. The effect lasts for a limited time, on average 6 to 12 months. Common side effects are usually mild for these medications and include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, and weight loss. There are three drugs of this type: donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and rivastigmine (Exelon).
- Aricept is the only treatment approved by the FDA for all stages of Alzheimer’s disease: mild, moderate, and severe. You can take it as a tablet that you swallow or that dissolves in your mouth.
- Razadyne (formerly called Reminyl) is also for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. You can get it as a tablet that works right away, a capsule that gives off the medicine slowly, and in liquid forms.
- Exelon is for people who have mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. You can wear a skin patch that has the drug, or take it in capsules and in liquid form.
- Memantine (Namenda)treats moderate-to-severe Alzheimer's disease. It works by changing the amount of a brain chemical called glutamate, which plays a role in learning and memory. Brain cells in people with Alzheimer’s disease give off too much glutamate. Namenda keeps the levels of that chemical in check by blocking the receptors. It may improve how well the brain works and how well some people can do everyday tasks. The drug may work even better when you take it with Aricept, Exelon, or Razadyne. Namenda’s side effects include tiredness, dizziness, confusion, constipation, and headache.
- Namzaric. This drug is a mix of Namenda and Aricept. It's best for people with moderate to severe Alzheimer's who already take the two drugs separately.
Doctors can also prescribe medicines for other health problems that happen along with the disease, including depression, sleeplessness, and behavior problems like agitation and aggression.
Scientists are looking for new treatments for Alzheimer’s in clinical trials. These studies test new drugs to see if they can slow the progress of the disease or improve memory problems or other symptoms. They’re also looking for other ways beyond drugs to treat the disease, such as an Alzheimer’s vaccine.
Many people hoped that supplements such as vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, coral calcium, ginkgo biloba, and huperzine A might work well as treatments for the disease. But so far, there’s no evidence that they have any effect. The results of studies on omega-3 fatty acids have been mixed, and scientists are doing more research to look into their effects on Alzheimer’s.
Scientists continue to look for ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier, before symptoms appear, which could help people start treatment sooner.