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What Medications Are Used to Treat Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible brain disorder that progressively impairs memory and cognition. It causes plaques and tangles in the brain, as well as destroys nerve cell communication.1 Treating Alzheimer’s disease is multi-pronged, and involves managing behavioral symptoms, providing supportive care, and helping maintain mental functioning and slowing of symptoms. Medication can be one of these treatments.

There are some medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but these drugs are not a cure and do not stop the disease from progressing. Different medications are approved for different stages of the disease, and many drugs are most effective in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer’s.2 These drugs can help to slow down the progression of cognitive symptoms, but do not prevent the disease from getting worse.

Types of drugs

To treat the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, the FDA has approved two kinds of medications: cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine (brand name Namenda).3 The cholinesterase inhibitors include donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and rivastigmine (Exelon). There is also a combination of memantine and donepezil, called Namzaric. These are all prescription-only drugs. They work in similar ways, but people with Alzheimer’s might respond better to one than another, so if one drug is not effective, don’t give up hope.

Cholinesterase inhibitors are most effective in early to moderate Alzheimer’s because they help to slow down or stop the breakdown of a chemical called acetylcholine, which helps cell communication and aids in memory and cognition.2 These medications are less effective as Alzheimer’s disease becomes more widespread because as the condition progresses, there is less acetylcholine produced in the brain, so inhibiting the breakdown of acetylcholine does not have as much an effect.

Memantine (Namenda) and memantine and donepezil (Namzaric) are usually prescribed for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. Memantine works on glutamate, which is a chemical involved in information processing. Memantine helps make sure that glutamate is not overproduced, reducing symptoms.

Side effects

As with any kind of medication or supplement, there may be side effects when taking these approved medications for Alzheimer’s disease. Medications are usually started at low doses, and as your body gets used to them, the dosage is gradually increased to a dose where it has been shown to be most effective. Some of the common side effects from these drugs for Alzheimer’s include nausea, vomiting, changes in appetite (usually loss of appetite), increased bowel movements, constipation, and headache.2,3 Many of the side effects will resolve over time, but patients should let their doctor know about any side effects or abnormal symptoms that they may be experiencing.

Medications are just one part of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, but can be an important aspect of treating the condition. Some other medications may be used to treat behavioral aspects of Alzheimer’s disease, such as antidepressants, but should be used with caution any medications to address the cognitive symptoms are taken because some of those drugs may make cognitive symptoms worse. Talk with the doctor about whether medication is appropriate and safe, and if so, which one might be best.

Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: June 2019
  1. National Institute on Aging. What Is Alzheimer’s Disease? 2017. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-alzheimers-disease Accessed March 4, 2019.
  2. National Institute on Aging. How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Treated? 2018. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-alzheimers-disease-treated Accessed March 4, 2019.
  3. Alzheimer’s Association. Medications For Memory. 2019. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/treatments/medications-for-memory Accessed March 4, 2019.