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Alzheimer's Disease Treatment Options

July 9, 2009
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How is AD treated?

AD is a complex disease, and no single “magic bullet” is likely to prevent or cure it. That’s why current treatments focus on several different issues, including helping people maintain mental function; managing behavioral symptoms; and slowing, delaying, or preventing AD.

AD research has developed to a point where scientists can look beyond treating symptoms to think about addressing the underlying disease process. Scientists are looking at many possible interventions, such as cardiovascular treatments, antioxidants, immunization therapy, cognitive training, and physical activity.

What drugs are currently available to treat AD?

No treatment has been proven to stop AD. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved four drugs to treat AD. For people with mild or moderate AD, donepezil (Aricept®), rivastigmine (Exelon®), or galantamine (Razadyne®) may help maintain cognitive abilities and help control certain behavioral symptoms for a few months to a few years. Donepezil can be used for severe AD, too. Another drug, memantine (Namenda®), is used to treat moderate to severe AD. However, these drugs don’t change the underlying disease process.

These drugs work by regulating neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons. They also may help maintain thinking, memory, and speaking skills and may help with certain behavioral problems.

Other medicines may ease the behavioral symptoms of AD—sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, anger, and depression. Treating these symptoms often makes patients more comfortable and makes their care easier for caregivers.

 No published study directly compares the four approved AD drugs. Because they work in a similar way, it is not expected that switching from one of these drugs to another will produce significantly different results. However, an AD patient may respond better to one drug than another.

Also see: AD Medications Fact Sheet

What potential new treatments are being researched?

NIA, part of the National Institutes of Health, is the lead Federal agency for AD research. NIA-supported scientists are testing a number of drugs and other interventions to see if they prevent AD, slow the disease, or help reduce symptoms.

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