How is Alzheimer's disease treated?
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Alzheimer's disease is complex, and there isn’t one treatment that, taken by itself, can successfully treat it. Current drug therapies focus on maintaining mental function, managing behavioral symptoms, and at best, delaying the symptoms.
Several medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's. Donepezil (Aricept®), rivastigmine (Exelon®), and galantamine (Razadyne®) are used to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer's (donepezil can be used for severe Alzheimer's treatment as well). Memantine (Namenda®), is used to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer's.
These drugs regulate neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that transmit messages between neurons. They may help maintain thinking, memory, and communication skills and help with certain behavioral problems for a limited time period.. However, these drugs don’t change the underlying disease process. They are essentially “band-aids”. But the analogy ends there. At least “band-aids” on a wound help in the healing process. This particular band-aid’s best hope is to slow down the inevitable outcome. No published study directly compares the four approved drugs. Because they work in a similar way, switching from one of these drugs to another doesn’t typically produce significantly different results. However, side-effects may differ from drug to drug and patient to patient, so switching may help in that aspect.
Common behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s include, wandering, agitation, anxiety, and depression. Research is searching for new therapies - drug and nondrug—to manage them. Again, these drugs do nothing to change the underlying causes, but can make patients significantly more comfortable and make things easier for the families and caregivers.
Alzheimer’s disease research is now looking beyond treating symptoms, and is focusing on ways to address the underlying disease process. In ongoing clinical trials, scientists are developing and testing several possible interventions, including immunization therapy, drug therapies, cognitive training, physical activity, and treatments used for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.