Currently, no treatment for Alzheimer’s is able to stop or even slow down the disease process. Approved drugs aim to lessen symptoms and only work for a limited amount of time, for a limited number of people. As a result, managing Alzheimer’s involves not just medication but also the assistance of a caregiver, careful monitoring of symptoms and making lifestyle choices based on the patient’s needs.
Commonly prescribed medications for memory loss include donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), galantamine (Razadyne) and memantine (Namenda). The first three – Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne – are cholinesterase inhibitors. These drugs work by reducing the rate at which acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter, is broken down, thereby increasing its concentration in the brain and offsetting loss of the substance caused by death of the neurons (brain cells) that create it. This boosts brain activity by allowing neurons to communicate and send signals to one another.
The last drug, Namenda, regulates the activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is overproduced in Alzheimer’s and can overstimulate and kill neurons.
All four medications produce similar results, though some patients may respond to one drug and not another. Aricept, Exelon and Razadyne are indicated for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s, while Namenda is indicated for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. In about half of all patients, these drugs provide a small benefit to memory and cognition for a period of 6 to 12 months.
Occasionally, a doctor may prescribe a different medication to treat a specific symptom; for example, sleep disruption or anxiety.
Drugs in development
While no currently available drug is able to slow or stop Alzheimer’s, many are in various stages of development. Click here for a comprehensive listing of therapeutics.
Some patients may wish to participate in clinical trials. To find trials in your area, click here.
Because current medications offer limited relief from symptoms, managing Alzheimer’s disease involves the dedicated help of a caregiver, a person who can provide assistance, guidance and comfort to the Alzheimer’s patient. Sometimes caregivers are trained medical personnel, but more often, patients are cared for by a family member – a child, sibling, or spouse.
In addition to helping with daily tasks, a caregiver might also help a person with Alzheimer’s in the following ways:
Encouraging daily exercise such as a half-hour walk
Encouraging a healthy diet, as people with Alzheimer’s may lose interest in food and cooking, or even forget to eat
Help maintain a stimulating social environment
What resources are available to me as a person living with Alzheimer’s, a caretaker, or a concerned family member?
Find clinical trials in your area using this tool from the National Institute on Aging.
Alzforum.org provides a comprehensive, searchable list of all Alzheimer’s treatments currently being investigated.
The National Institue on Aging’s comprehensive guide to caregiving. (PDF download.)
Alzheimer’s Caregiver Center
Information and resources for caregivers, including an online community.
Alzheimer’s Reading Room
A great blog for caregivers and family members of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
NYC-based organization specializing in Alzheimer's and dementia care. Their 24-hour helpline, 646-744-2900, offers help and advice to caregivers, patients and family members across the country.