What Medicines Treat Dementia?

When someone you care about has dementia, their memory loss is affecting their daily life. You want to find a medication that can help them. Unfortunately, there aren’t any medicines that can cure dementia or slow it down. But there are treatments to help ease some of its symptoms.

The two most commonly prescribed medicines for dementia are cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine (Namenda). Doctors use them mainly to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common kind of dementia. They prescribe them for other kinds of dementia as well.

What Are Cholinesterase Inhibitors?

If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease that isn’t too severe yet, his doctor might prescribe him a cholinesterase inhibitor. If he has another type of dementia, his doctor may consider it, too.

What they do: Scientists think these help prevent a “messenger chemical” in our brains called acetylcholine from breaking down. Acetylcholine is important in learning, memory, and mood. Cholinesterase inhibitors also appear to delay the worsening of Alzheimer’s symptoms.

These medicines include:

  • Donepezil (Aricept)
  • Galantamine (Razadyne, Razadyne ER, Reminyl)
  • Rivastigmine (Exelon)

What to expect: Most people with Alzheimer’s who take one of these medications get some benefit from it, including less anxiety, improved motivation, and better concentration and memory. And some are able to continue with their regular activities.

But the improvements don’t seem to last long -- about 6 to 12 months. They mainly delay the worsening of the disease for a period of time.

All three medicines work similarly, but one might work better for your loved one than it does for someone else.

Side effects: Most people don’t have side effects when they take cholinesterase inhibitors, but some do have:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • More frequent bowel movements
  • Bruising
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia

What Is Memantine?

If your loved one has moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, his doctor may prescribe him memantine (Namenda) for his symptoms.

What it does: Memantine could help improve memory, attention, reasoning, and language. Your doctor may also prescribe it with donepezil (Aricept).

Memantine helps balance glutamate, which is another “messenger chemical” involved in our memory and learning.

What to expect: Studies show that memantine can curb delusions (believing things that aren’t true), hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there), agitation, aggression, and irritability. It can also help your loved one with disorientation and make his daily activities easier.

Memantine comes in immediate-release tablets, extended-release tablets, and oral drops.

Side effects: The side effects aren’t as bad or as common as the side effects of cholinesterase inhibitors, and include:

  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Sleepiness
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on August 22, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Alzheimer’s Association: “Alzheimer’s & Dementia,” “Medications for Memory Loss.”

CDC, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: “What are Cholinesterase Inhibitors?”

Alzheimer’s Society: “Memantine,” “Drug Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dementia,” “Vascular Dementia: Treatment and Drugs.”

AlzForum: “Memantine.”

Alzheimer’s Australia: “Drug Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease: Cholinesterase Inhibitors.”

National Institute of Health, Medline Plus: “Understanding Alzheimer's.”

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