What Anxiolytics Can Help Treat Alzheimer's Symptoms?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2022. | Last updated: October 2022

Although cognitive issues are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, there are other symptoms that may arise that are just as important to address. Managing behavioral symptoms not only eases symptoms for the individual, but it also makes a difference in relationships with family members and makes caregiving easier as well.

Behavioral symptoms commonly seen in those with Alzheimer’s can include anxiety, aggression or agitation, hallucinations, restlessness, wandering, sleeplessness, and depression.1

Treatment for anxiety and agitation

Anxiety and agitation are not uncommon in Alzheimer’s disease, and may be caused by a number of things, including other medical conditions, medication or medication interactions, or changes in a person’s daily routine.

Anxiolytics, which are drugs used to help treat anxiety and agitation, can have side effects like sleepiness, confusion, and dizziness. These medications can also contribute to fall risk, so it’s suggested that these drugs be used only short-term.1

There are other ways to help treat anxiety, including environmental adaptations, simplifying routines, and gently providing behavioral restructuring, like helping the individual find an outlet for their energy, taking a walk with them, and providing reassurance and positive reinforcement.2

The most common kind of anxiolytics are benzodiazepines, although sometimes antidepressants like SSRIs can also be used to treat anxiety.3 Talk to a doctor about the specific anxiety or agitation that is occurring; the doctor will be able to help determine which medication might be best for someone with Alzheimer’s based on symptoms, other medications they may be taking, and an individual’s general health and level of functioning.

Common anxiolytics can include3:

  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)

Side effects of anxiolytics

Any medication or supplement may have accompanying side effects or medication interactions. Sometimes side effects can be bothersome enough that a person may need to stop the medication or try a different drug, but many times the side effects resolve on their own after time. If any abnormal symptoms or side effects occur, or if the side effects are significant, talk with the prescribing doctor.

Common side effects of anxiolytics can include3:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Blurry vision
  • Confusion
  • Nightmares
  • Headaches
  • Dependency

There are potentially serious side effects that warrant telling the doctor about immediately. These can include3:

  • Rash or hives
  • Swelling of the eyes, face, lips, tongue, or throat
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Yellowing of the eyes
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • Trouble speaking

These are not all the possible side effects of anxiolytics. Patients should talk to their doctor about what to expect with treatment with anxiolytics.

Side effects can also vary depending on what kind of anxiolytic someone is taking. Elderly individuals are more prone to these side effects with benzodiazepine use: confusion, cognitive impairment, delirium, paradoxical excitation, and night wandering. Talk to a doctor about the specific kind of drug that’s being prescribed, as well as the common side effects, including potentially serious side effects, patients should be looking for.

Anxiolytics can be a helpful treatment for people with Alzheimer’s disease, although they should be prescribed with care, and only after other kinds of treatment have proven ineffective. There are risks and benefits to medication, so a discussion with the doctor about whether this is right for someone, their symptoms, and the specific situation is highly recommended.

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