Are We Close to an Alzheimer's Cure?

Man talking to a doctor at a hospital

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Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that causes dementia and severe cognitive decline. In America today, it affects up to 5.8 million people over the age of 65. A small number of people in their 40s to 60s could also develop a form of the disease known as early-onset Alzheimer's.

There's currently no cure for this condition. Treatment focuses on reducing the severity of your symptoms and helping you live a functioning life. However, scientists and researchers across the globe continue to work tirelessly to find a cure.

Some researchers believe that the development of a drug called Aduhelm, which works by preventing the buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain which kill nerve cells, comes close. 

This article covers what Alzheimer's disease is and whether it can be cured.

What Is Alzheimer's Disease? 

Alzheimer's disease is a neurological condition that affects a person's memory, how they think and behave, and even their abilities to carry out simple everyday tasks.

It's a progressive disease which means that it worsens over time.

Causes of Alzheimer's Disease 

Alzheimer's disease is thought to be caused by the buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain called amyloids. This buildup leads to the death of nerve cells in the brain, which in turn causes cognitive decline. 

Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease

Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease vary from person to person. They also tend to evolve as the disease progresses.

To understand the condition's symptoms, you need to examine how it affects a person in every stage. 

Mild Alzheimer's Disease 

Some of the most common symptoms you'll notice in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Mood swings 
  • Personality changes 
  • Mild confusion 
  • Memory loss
  • Poor judgment 
  • Suddenly getting lost in familiar spaces 
  • Losing things 
  • Asking questions repeatedly 

Moderate and Severe Alzheimer's Disease

Common signs of Alzheimer's in its moderate to late stages include: 

  • Severe memory loss and confusion 
  • Difficulty carrying out simple tasks 
  • Difficulty learning new things 
  • Aggression and anger outbursts
  • Delusions 
  • Paranoia 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Failing to recognize family and friends  
  • Difficulty communicating

How Is Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosed? 

There's no particular way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. For an accurate diagnosis, your doctor and a neurologist will run a series of evaluations and tests on you. They'll ask you to describe your symptoms and, in some instances, invite your close friends and family to also give insight into your symptoms.

They'll also attempt to eliminate any other mental health or medical condition that could be responsible for your symptoms.

Brain imaging tests such as MRIs or CT scans might also be required to ascertain that Alzheimer's disease is responsible for your symptoms.

Alzheimer's Disease Treatment 

Treatment for Alzheimer's disease focuses on reducing the severity of your symptoms and improving daily functioning.

Scientists have discovered effective medical interventions for symptoms such as cognitive decline, aggression, depression, and dementia. When prescribing medication, your doctor is likely to start you off on a low dosage and gradually increase your dosage depending on how well you are tolerating the drug.

With most Alzheimer's disease medications, the higher the dosage, the more likely you are to experience bothersome side effects.

Cholinesterase Inhibitors 

Cholinesterase inhibitors such as Aricept (donepezil) and Exelon (rivastigmine) are typically prescribed to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in the early stages.

These drugs are believed to prevent the breakdown of a chemical messenger in the brain called acetylcholine. This, in turn, is thought to help slow cognitive decline. Common side effects you might experience when using cholinesterase inhibitors include nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, weight loss, and fatigue. 

NMDA Receptor Antagonists 

Memantine is the only NMDA receptor antagonist prescribed for treating Alzheimer's disease. It is typically prescribed for people who have moderate or severe forms of Alzheimer's disease. It can be prescribed with cholinesterase inhibitors to treat these cases effectively. 

Memantine helps decrease the severity of the cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer's disease. It's thought to work by regulating a chemical messenger in the brain called glutamate. Typical side effects you might experience when using memantine include diarrhea, confusion, headaches, nausea, and vomiting.

Aduhelm

Aduhelm (aducanumab) is currently the only medication with the potential to prevent Alzheimer's or slow down the progression of the disease. Current studies on its effectiveness have only been done on people with early-stage Alzheimer's disease or mild symptoms. Results from those studies have also come back with mixed results.

The FDA approved Aduhelm in June 2021 under their accelerated approval program.This means that full approval of the drug is contingent upon the drug proving to be effective in slowing down the progression of cognitive decline and dementia in further trials.

Aduhelm is thought to work by preventing the buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain called amyloids. This, in turn, is expected to slow the progression of the disease.

Other Treatments 

While cognitive decline is the most recognizable feature of Alzheimer's disease, the condition also causes many behavioral and psychological symptoms. The good news is that several medications are either formulated for treating these symptoms or prescribed off-label by doctors who specialize in treating Alzheimer's disease.

Some of these treatments include: 

  • AntidepressantsAntidepressants such as Luvox (fluvoxamine) and Effexor (venlafaxine) are sometimes prescribed to treat symptoms of depression in people with Alzheimer's disease.
  • Anti-convulsants: These drugs are prescribed to help treat symptoms of aggression. It's, however, prescribed with caution, as it can cause side effects such as mood swings and confusion. 
  • AntipsychoticsAntipsychotics are prescribed to reduce the severity of symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. They are only given in severe cases as some research shows that they could increase the risk of death in older people with dementia. 

Is There a Cure?

"Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's, though the FDA has approved two types of drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, to treat symptoms. But these drugs can neither cure Alzheimer's nor halt its progression. Also, they don't work for every patient and eventually stop working for all patients," says Jacob Donoghue, MD, PhD, co-founder of Beacon Biosignals, a neurotechnology company researching precision medicine for brain conditions like Alzheimer's disease. 

Jacob Donoghue, MD, PhD

Alzheimer's is a common and insidious disease that devastates patients and their families in slow motion. There are no effective treatments that are fully approved for the underlying disease process, but many new drugs are being evaluated.

— Jacob Donoghue, MD, PhD

Frequently Asked Questions 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you manage living with Alzheimer's disease in daily life?

    Maintaining healthy habits is an excellent place to start when managing Alzheimer's disease in your daily life. Eating healthily, exercising regularly, and cutting out bad habits such as smoking and drinking excessively have been proven to reduce the severity of Alzheimer's symptoms.

  • Is Alzheimer's disease fatal?

    Alzheimer's disease is a progressive condition, which means its symptoms worsen over time. Some research shows that people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease typically live an average of eight years after diagnosis. However, with early diagnosis and effective treatment, you could live much longer after you've been diagnosed. 

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9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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