How Alzheimer's Disease Is Treated

woman in nursing home helping elderly woman

ljubaphoto/E+/Getty Images

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain condition that is extremely complex in nature. The scientific community still doesn't fully understand what causes it and it can be definitively diagnosed only after death.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition either; researchers are still working on treatments that can help prevent and cure Alzheimer’s.

In the meantime, medication can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and help patients cope with the symptoms.

While medication can’t cure the condition, it can help people living with Alzheimer’s disease maintain their independence and dignity for longer. It can also make it easier for family, friends, and caregivers to care for the person.

Medication to Improve Symptoms

There are different types of medications that can help treat the cognitive and behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

These medications can treat the manifestations of the disease but do not affect the underlying disease process, says Richard Marottoli, MD, MPH, a geriatrician at Yale Medicine who specializes in treating Alzheimer’s disease.

Patients are often given low doses of medication at first and then monitored to see how well they are responding to it. The dosage is gradually increased depending on how they are tolerating it. While higher doses can sometimes be more effective, they can also result in stronger side effects.

Discuss any symptoms and side effects you or a loved one are experiencing with a healthcare provider, so they can determine the best course of treatment and adjust medication if required.

Cholinesterase Inhibitors

There is a group of drugs known as cholinesterase inhibitors that can help with the cognitive and behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

While the exact mechanism of these drugs is still unclear, research indicates that they work by blocking an enzyme known as acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) known as acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine plays an important role in cognitive functions like thinking and remembering. Low acetylcholine levels are responsible for some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, like memory loss.

By blocking the enzyme and inhibiting the breakdown of acetylcholine, these medications can help with some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, including memory loss.

Cholinesterase inhibitors include:

  • Aricept (donepezil): For treatment of all stages of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Exelon (rivastigmine): For treatment of early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Razadyne (galantamine): For treatment of early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease

Cholinesterase inhibitors are primarily used in the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease because as the condition progresses, the brain produces less acetylcholine, so these medications may not be effective anymore.

Since these three drugs work in a similar fashion, switching from one to another probably won’t produce different results. However, the patient may respond better to one drug over another.

Side effects of these medications include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, diarrhea, reduced appetite, weight loss, muscle cramps, dizziness, and headaches.

NMDA Antagonist

There is another class of medication that helps with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Known as an N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist, the drug is named memantine and it is sold under the brand name Namenda. It is used to treat middle to late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

This medication can help people with Alzheimer’s disease independently perform daily tasks such as eating, walking, bathing, dressing, and using the toilet in the late stages of the disease or for several more months than they would otherwise have been able to.

Namenda works by regulating the neurotransmitter glutamate, which activates NMDA receptors on nerve cells. Excess glutamate production can lead to brain cell death, so by inhibiting glutamate, Namenda protects your brain cells.

Side effects of Namenda include dizziness, headaches, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea.

Since this drug works differently than cholinesterase inhibitors, it is sometimes used in combination with cholinesterase inhibitors. Namzaric is a medication that combines donepezil and memantine.

Medication for Behavioral Symptoms

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, it can cause several behavioral symptoms such as wandering, restlessness, sleeplessness, aggression, agitation, anxiety, and depression.

These symptoms can take a toll on the patient as well as their caregivers. Treating these symptoms can make patients more comfortable and make it easier to care for them.

These are some of the types of medication that can help:

  • Anti-anxiety medication can help treat agitation.
  • Anticonvulsant drugs can help treat severe aggression.
  • Antidepressants can help treat depression, anxiety, restlessness, and aggression.
  • Antipsychotics can help treat symptoms like hallucinations and paranoia.
  • Sleep aids can help you sleep through the night.

However, these medications can cause severe side effects in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Side effects can include confusion, dizziness, sleepiness, mood swings, and increased chances of falling.

Because of the side effects they cause, it is only advisable to use these medicines occasionally or for short periods of time. They are often used as a last resort after carefully considering the risks and side effects and only if other strategies have failed. 

Antipsychotic drugs, in particular, should only be used if your healthcare provider agrees that the symptoms are serious, as the side effects are severe and these medications can increase the risk of death in some older people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Medication to Slow Disease Progression

There is also medication that may be able to reduce the rate of cognitive decline and slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In July 2021, the FDA gave accelerated approval for a drug known as ​​aducanumab (brand name Aduhelm). 

This drug may be able to help reduce the amyloid protein deposits in the brain, one of the markers of Alzheimer’s disease. These protein deposits interfere with the function of brain cells, causing them to lose touch with each other and eventually die. 

Clinical trial results in people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease showed that the drug helped reduce the rate of cognitive and functional decline in some participants. For instance, they had better memory and orientation and were better able to manage finances and perform household chores.

Side effects of this drug include allergic reactions, headaches, and increased risk of falling. People may also experience amyloid-related imaging abnormalities (ARIA), which can include confusion, dizziness, nausea, vision changes, and temporary swelling in certain parts of the brain that is sometimes accompanied by small spots of blood on the surface of the brain.

According to Marottoli, this drug, as well as other similar agents under investigation, may actually alter the underlying process of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than just helping with the symptoms. 

However, the approval of this drug is quite controversial. “Many questions remain about the practical benefit, logistics, and costs of this medication,” says Marottoli. 

There is no information about the safety or efficacy of the drug for people in other stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug is being tested further and its approval will be secured, adjusted, or revoked depending on the results.

Psychotherapy

Being diagnosed with a progressive, terminal illness can cause a lot of distress to patients and their loved ones. Therapy can help you accept the situation and develop coping skills to navigate it.

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, it can make it difficult for you to manage daily chores, personal tasks, and finances without assistance. Losing your independence and agency can be painful and embarrassing. Therapy can help you process your feelings, ask for help, and build the kind of support you will need to cope with this condition.

Therapy can also be effective for dealing with mood or affective components that may accompany cognitive changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, says Marottoli.

You can seek either individual therapy or group therapy. Individual therapy can offer a safe space for you to discuss your feelings and concerns in private, whereas group therapy can help you connect with others who are living with the same condition you are.

How to Make Your Treatment Most Effective

These are some steps you can take to help make your treatment most effective and maintain your quality of life for as long as possible:

  • Take medication as prescribed: Seeking medical treatment, taking your medicines as prescribed, and reporting any side effects to your doctor can help you manage the symptoms of this condition and slow down the progression of the disease.
  • Get regular health check-ups: It’s important to check in with your healthcare provider regularly, to evaluate the progression of the condition, discuss any symptoms and side effects, and check for other health conditions.
  • Treat other health conditions: Identifying and treating other health conditions that you may have, like vision and hearing loss, for instance, can also be helpful. Marottoli says optimizing hearing and vision is important, as improved sensory input can make it easier for the brain to process this information.
  • Stay active and engaged: “Be physically, socially, and cognitively active and stay engaged. Check on resources in your community regarding activity programs and support groups,” says Marottoli.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Marottoli recommends following a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, and exercising regularly.
  • Work on a care plan: Work with a healthcare provider, family, friends, caregivers, and community to educate yourself about this condition and how you can maintain your independence for as long as possible, as well as to plan out your care when you need assistance.
Was this page helpful?
Article 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.
  1. Cummings, J., Aisen, P., Lemere, C. et al. Aducanumab produced a clinically meaningful benefit in association with amyloid loweringAlz Res Therapy 13, 98 (2021). doi:10.1186/s13195-021-00838-z

Additional Reading