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Despite more than 400 hundred trial studies, there are only a few medications known to help treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia.
Researchers are working to develop additional medications and treatments. There are four medications approved by the FDA for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. Three of them are acetylcholinesterase inhibitors donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (Razadyne).
They work by disrupting a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is affected by brains with dementia.
The benefits of these medications are relatively small, but they can be meaningful. They have been shown to have effects that can increase the person’s quality of life. These effects can decrease the burden on caregivers and delay the need for nursing home placement or around-the-clock care. Side effects of these medications can include gastro-intestinal issues including nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Some people experience sleep disruptions like insomnia and abnormal dreams. People may experience slower heart rate and fainting, muscle cramps, fatigue, and weight loss. In people with frontotemporal dementia, cholinesterase inhibitors can worsen symptoms. Sometimes SSRIs are used to treat frontotemporal dementia disorders.
The fourth FDA-approved medication is memantine (Namenda). This medication works by blocking a neurotransmitter called glutamate. Memantine has fewer side effects and may provide an alternative to patients who cannot tolerate the side effects of cholinesterase inhibitors. It is sometimes prescribed as an add-on treatment to donepezil.
When effective, these medications can potentially delay the progression of memory loss by about six to twelve months.