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Alzheimer's disease treatment

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but there are medicines available on prescription that can help delay the condition's development.

Treatment for Alzheimer's disease also involves creating a care plan. This identifies the type of assistance that you might need, and focuses on ways of providing this support. 

Medicines

Medicines that may be prescribed for Alzheimer's disease includes:

  • donepezil (brand name Aricept)
  • rivastigmine (brand name Exelon)
  • galantamine (various brand names)
  • memantine (various brand names).

Whether these medicines are used will depend on the severity of your Alzheimer's disease.

In the first instance, these medicines can only be prescribed by a specialist who has experience in treating dementia, such as a:

  • psychiatrist – a qualified medical doctor who has further training in treating mental health conditions
  • neurologist – a specialist in treating conditions that affect the nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)
  • physician (medical doctor) who specialises in care for the elderly.

After this, your doctor may be able to repeat your prescription, and you may be monitored by both your specialist and your doctor. Your MMSE score will be reviewed every six months. 

Mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease 

If you have moderate Alzheimer's disease you may be prescribed one of the following medicines:

  • donepezil
  • galantamine
  • rivastigmine.

The healthcare professionals treating you will decide which of these medicines is the most appropriate treatment for you.

These medicines are known as 'acetylcholinesterase inhibitors' (AChE). They work by preventing a chemical breakdown in the brain.

When nerve cells are damaged by brain deterioration, they release a chemical called "acetylcholine". By preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine, brain deterioration is also slowed.

Moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease

Memantine may be presecribed for people with moderate Alzheimer's disease who cannot take AChE inhibitors or for people with severe Alzheimer's disease.

Memantine works by blocking chemicals that are often released in large amounts in people with Alzheimer's disease. These chemicals can damage nerve cells and prevent messages moving to and from the brain.

Side effects

Donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine (acetylcholinesterase inhibitors) can cause side effects including:

  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea 
  • headaches
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep)
  • muscle cramps (when your muscles suddenly shorten and cause pain).

For more information about the possible side effects of a particular medication, refer to the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine, or ask your doctor. 

Dementia

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is a syndrome (a group of symptoms) that is associated with an ongoing decline in mental abilities. The treatment for Alzheimer's disease will follow the same pattern as the treatment for dementia.

If you have been diagnosed with any other conditions as well as Alzheimer's disease, for example, depression or incontinence (when you unintentionally pass urine or stools), these may be treated separately.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Treating Alzheimer's disease)

Delaying dementia progress - expert advice

There are many ways that a person can delay the progression of dementia. This can include managing pre-existing illnesses as well as managing medications to remain as healthy as possible. Watch the video below and find out more about what can be done to delay its progression.


Read the related video transcript

Last reviewed: June 2015

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