Which Medicines Treat Dementia?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on February 08, 2023
7 min read

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. There are medicines that can help.

This is the first drug approved by the FDA to treat Alzheimer's disease in decades. If your loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, their doctor may prescribe this monthly infusion.

What it does: It's a monoclonal antibody that lessens the buildup of things called amyloid plaques in your brain. These plaques are part of what leads to the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease.

What to expect: For people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or early Alzheimer's disease, the drug appears to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Side effects: The most common appears to be something called ARIA: amyloid-related imaging abnormalities. One study suggests that 41% of people who take this drug will develop ARIA. These problems include temporary swelling in the brain and small areas of bleeding. 

This drug is also approved to treat the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. It may be prescribed as an infusion administered every two weeks.

What it does: It's a monoclonal antibody that lessens the buildup of amyloid plaques in your brain.

What to expect: For people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or early Alzheimer's disease, the drug appears to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Side effects: In addition to possible flu-like symptoms, patients may also develop ARIA. There is also the possibility of temporary swelling in the brain and small areas of bleeding. 

If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease that isn’t too severe yet, their doctor might prescribe them a cholinesterase inhibitor. If they have another type of dementia, their 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:

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

If your loved one has moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, their doctor may prescribe them memantine (Namenda) for their 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 their 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:

For a person with Alzheimer's, taking medication by mouth can be a challenge. For example, they might not recognize that a pill in their mouth is medicine and that they should swallow it. If this happens, you could ask their doctor or pharmacist if it comes in liquid form or in tablets that dissolve.

If your loved one finds it hard to swallow a pill, there may be a physical reason. For example, if their mouth is dry, have them drink a little water, juice, or coffee first.

If that doesn't work and the medicine doesn't come in another form, ask the doctor or pharmacist if you can crush tablets or caplets, or open capsules and sprinkle the pellets into food or liquid. But you shouldn’t do this with medicines that dissolve over time, called sustained-release medications, so be sure to check first.

If your loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, they’re probably used to taking their own medication. They may become unreliable and need help, but they may want to stay in charge of their pills. If so, it’s very important that they do it safely.

You can do several things to help with that:

  • Use a pill organizer box that you fill up once a week. Store the bottles of labeled medications somewhere safe. If they take medicines more than once a day, use a box that has sections labeled a.m. and p.m.
  • Make a routine to help them remember to take their medicine.
  • Try to fit the medication schedule to their daily routine.
  • Use a reminder like an alarm clock or a daily phone call to help them remember their medicine when you can't be there.
  • If you don’t think they can safely handle their medicines on their own, try to work as a team. Talk with them about what reminders and assistance they would like.

It’s common for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s to take medications for other conditions, but not take the ones for their Alzheimer’s. That’s because they focus on the condition they already have and don’t see a need to take more medicine for another.

In the later stages of dementia, you’ll need to take charge of your loved one’s medications. These steps can help that go smoothly:

  • Read labels. Know what all the medications are for and how your loved one should take them.
  • Be sure your loved one is only taking medicine they really need and that the dose is right. Have their doctor go over the list about every 6 to 12 months. They may be able to stop the ones they don’t need or change a dose. This means your loved one may be able to take fewer medications and may have fewer side effects.
  • Keep an up-to-date list of all medications in an easy-to-find place. Be sure it has the name of everything your loved one takes. This includes prescriptions, vitamins, herbals, and supplements. It should also have the dose for each one and how and when to take it.
  • Know the risks, benefits, and potential side effects of each one.
  • Make sure they take the right one at the right time.
  • Watch for side effects.
  • Know the risks of how each one might react to foods, supplements, and nonprescription medications.
  • Watch to see that your loved one doesn’t take their medicines without your knowledge.
  • Be sure to refill their prescriptions.
  • Ask the doctor or pharmacist to make the medication list simpler. They might be able to cut down on how many medicines your loved one has to take or the number of times a day they take it.
  • When you give them medicine, talk to them simply and clearly. Say something like, “Here’s the pill for your arthritis. Put it in your mouth." Hand them a glass of water and say, "Have a drink of water to help the pill go down.”
  • If they won’t take their medication, don't argue or fight. Instead, stop and try to find out why. Maybe their mouth hurts or the medication tastes bad. They may not remember how to swallow a pill or what it's for. It may help to remind them that it’s the pill they asked for to ease pain, or that someone they trust thinks it will help. If they still won’t take it, try again later.
  • If they keep refusing, ask their doctor to see if there’s a physical cause. The doctor may also show you an easier way to give it, such as in a liquid or a tablet that dissolves.
  • To prevent an accidental overdose, keep all medications in a locked drawer or cabinet.
  • If you can't be there when they take their medications, get someone else to help.

If your loved one misses a dose, don't worry. Just take the next dose at the normal time and in the normal amount. Never give two doses at once. This more than doubles the risk of side effects. If your loved one misses medications often, talk about it with their doctor.

If your loved one's doctor prescribes a new medication, you could ask:

  • What is its name? Does it go by any other names?
  • Why have you prescribed this?
  • Do they have to take this medication? Are there any alternatives?
  • How often and at what time of day should they take it?
  • Should they take it with food or on an empty stomach?
  • Are there any side effects that I should watch for?
  • How much does it cost? Are there less costly or free alternatives?