Public Education

Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease

While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or for most other causes of dementia at present, many of the problems associated with dementia such as restlessness and depression can be treated. It may also be possible, especially in the early stages of dementia, to improve someone’s memory with medication. Your doctor will determine the best treatment for you based on various factors, including:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, and therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference


There is an immense amount of research taking place into new drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and the other dementias.


The main compounds used are the cholinesterase inhibitors (also known as anticholinesterase drugs). Four have been licensed for use in many countries. These drugs work by reducing the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is a chemical substance that occurs naturally in the brain and enables nerve cells in the brain to pass messages to each other.

Research has shown that many people with Alzheimer’s disease have a reduced amount of acetylcholine, and it is thought that the loss of this chemical interferes with memory function. Side effects of these drugs may include diarrhoea, nausea, insomnia or vivid dreams, fatigue and loss of appetite. It is important to realise that these drugs are not a cure, and can only stabilise some of the symptoms of early to mid stage Alzheimer’s disease for a limited period of time.


More recently, a different type of drug has become available, which works to modify the function of the NMDA receptor. This is involved with the chemical transmitter glutamate, and research has suggested that too much glutamate is damaging or toxic to the nerve cell. Memantine has been licensed in several countries for treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. It is the first drug for people in the later stages of the disease. Although memantine can help with the symptoms, there is no evidence that it modifies the underlying pathology of the disease.


A number of other treatments, including Vitamin E, oestrogen and anti-inflammatory drugs have shown some promising associations, but are not yet proven for routine use. Nootropics, such as Ginkgo Biloba, are available in many countries. Ginkgo seems to improve cerebral blood flow, but consistent improved outcomes with it have not yet been clinically demonstrated. There is increasing evidence that diet and cholesterol may play a role in the development of the plaques which are characteristic of the pathology in Alzheimer’s disease. Research is underway into the use of cholesterol lowering drugs, statins, in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Controlled trials of statins are assessing whether the rate of decline in Alzheimer’s disease can be modified or slowed by these medications. Other kinds of drugs are sometimes useful for controlling some of the symptoms of dementia, such as sleeplessness and agitation. In general, however, the use of drugs such as sleeping pills or tranquillisers should be kept to a minimum if someone has dementia, as they can cause increased confusion. It is also possible to help people with dementia and their caregivers in a variety of practical ways. These include developing ways of caring for people with dementia which build on the strengths and abilities of those affected. This ensures that people with dementia maintain a sense of well-being and individuality throughout their illness.