Alzheimer's Disease Treatment

Written by Wendy Leonard, MPH | Published on September 15, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on September 15, 2014

Treatment Overview

Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a complex disease. It doesn't conform to one-size-fits-all treatments. Researchers believe that customized approaches using different medications can help most people. Here is a summary of the current AD medications.

Current Medication Options

According to the National Institute on Aging, the FDA has approved four AD medications. They don't affect everyone in the same way and the benefits can diminish over time. You should talk to your doctor about your options.

The four medications are:

  • donepezil (Aricept): for mild, moderate, and severe AD symptoms; common side effects include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • galantamine(Razadyne): for mild and moderate AD symptoms; common side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and loss of appetite.
  • memantinen (Namenda): for moderate and severe AD symptoms, but not for mild AD symptoms (currently there’s little evidence of benefit in the early stages of AD); common side effects include dizziness, headache, constipation, and confusion.
  • rivastigmine (Exelon): for mild and moderate AD symptoms; common side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, loss of appetite, and muscle weakness.

How Do These Medications Work?

These medications control the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons called "neurotransmitters." This helps to maintain thinking and memory, and manage some behavioral problems.

Which Medication is Best?

No published study has compared the four drugs. They appear to work in similar ways. They all affect the level of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Switching from one medication to another will not produce different results.

What About Non-AD-Specific Medications?

Some medications can temporarily treat, or at least ease, AD symptoms. These include antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleep aids, and antipsychotics. They help with symptoms like:

  • sleeplessness
  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • anger
  • severe aggression
  • wandering
  • depression

It’s essential to consult an experienced AD doctor in order to receive the maximum benefit from medication. 

To learn more, read about drugs for Alzheimer’s disease.

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