Dementia is a term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills. This decline is severe enough to make you less able to perform everyday activities.
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. Other common types include Lewy body dementia, Parkinson's dementia, and vascular dementia.
There is no known cure for any type of dementia, and medications can’t prevent the condition or reverse the brain damage it causes. However, various drugs can provide some symptom relief. Read on to learn what these drugs may do to ease dementia symptoms for you or your loved one.
Several prescription medications are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat symptoms of dementia caused by AD. These drugs can provide short-term relief of cognitive (thought-related) dementia symptoms, and some can also help slow the progression of AD-related dementia.
While these drugs are approved to treat symptoms of AD, they’re not approved to treat symptoms of other types of dementia. However, researchers are exploring off-label uses of these medications for people with non-AD dementias. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, research suggests that some AD medications may benefit people with vascular dementias and Parkinson's dementia.
Some of the most commonly prescribed medications used to treat symptoms of AD are cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine.
Cholinesterase inhibitors work by increasing a chemical in your brain called acetylcholine that aids in memory and judgment. Increasing the amount of acetylcholine in your brain may delay dementia-related symptoms. It may also prevent them from worsening. The more common side effects of cholinesterase inhibitors include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness.
Examples of commonly prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors are:
Donepezil is approved to delay or slow the symptoms of mild, moderate, and severe AD. It may be used off-label to help reduce behavioral symptoms in some people with thought problems following a stroke, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia. Donepezil comes as a tablet and a disintegrating tablet.
Galantamine is approved to prevent or slow the symptoms of mild to moderate AD. It may be used off-label to help provide the same benefit for people with vascular dementia or Lewy body dementia. Galantamine comes as a tablet, extended-release capsule, and an oral solution.
Rivastigmine (Exelon) is approved to prevent or slow the symptoms of mild to moderate AD or mild to moderate Parkinson's dementia. It comes as a capsule or patch.
Memantine is used mainly to delay increasing cognitive and behavioral symptoms from moderate to severe AD. This effect may allow people with AD to function more normally for a longer time. Memantine may be used off-label to provide the same benefit for people with vascular dementia.
Memantine is not a cholinesterase inhibitor, but it also acts on chemicals in the brain. What’s more, memantine is often prescribed in combination with a cholinesterase inhibitor. An example of this combination is Namzaric, a medication that combines extended-release memantine with donepezil.
Memantine comes as a tablet, an extended-release capsule, and an oral solution. Its more common side effects include:
- high blood pressure
- infection with the flu
How effective a dementia drug is varies by drug. For all of these drugs, however, the effectiveness tends to reduce over time.
While there is no cure for dementia, several prescription medications can help slow the progression of the cognitive effects and other symptoms that dementia can cause.
If you or a loved one has dementia, talk to your doctor about all of your treatment options. Be sure to ask any questions you have, such as:
- What type of dementia is it?
- Which medications will you prescribe?
- What results should I expect from this medication?
- What other treatments are available?
- How long should I expect this medication to help?