Alzheimer's Disease Medications Fact Sheet
It is important to understand that none of these medications stops the disease itself.
For information about managing medicines for people with Alzheimer's disease, read the tip sheet Managing Medicines (PDF, 625K).
Volunteers—people with Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairment and healthy individuals—are needed to participate in Alzheimer's clinical research. Learn more about participating in clinical trials.
Treatment for Mild to Moderate Alzheimer’sMedications called cholinesterase inhibitors are prescribed for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. These drugs may help delay or prevent symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time and may help control some behavioral symptoms. The medications include: Razadyne® (galantamine), Exelon® (rivastigmine), and Aricept® (donepezil). Another drug, Cognex® (tacrine), was the first approved cholinesterase inhibitor but is rarely prescribed today due to safety concerns.
Scientists do not yet fully understand how cholinesterase inhibitors work to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but research indicates that they prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical believed to be important for memory and thinking. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the brain produces less and less acetylcholine; therefore, cholinesterase inhibitors may eventually lose their effect.
No published study directly compares these drugs. Because they work in a similar way, switching from one of these drugs to another probably will not produce significantly different results. However, an Alzheimer’s patient may respond better to one drug than another.
Treatment for Moderate to Severe Alzheimer’sA medication known as Namenda® (memantine), an N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist, is prescribed to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. This drug’s main effect is to delay progression of some of the symptoms of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s.
It may allow patients to maintain certain daily functions a little longer than they would without the medication. For example, Namenda® may help a patient in the later stages of the disease maintain his or her ability to use the bathroom independently for several more months, a benefit for both patients and caregivers.
Namenda® is believed to work by regulating glutamate, an important brain chemical. When produced in excessive amounts, glutamate may lead to brain cell death. Because NMDA antagonists work very differently from cholinesterase inhibitors, the two types of drugs can be prescribed in combination.
The FDA has also approved Aricept® for the treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease.
Dosage and Side EffectsDoctors usually start patients at low drug doses and gradually increase the dosage based on how well a patient tolerates the drug. There is some evidence that certain patients may benefit from higher doses of the cholinesterase inhibitors. However, the higher the dose, the more likely are side effects. The recommended effective dosages of drugs prescribed to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and the drugs’ possible side effects are summarized in the table (see below).
Patients should be monitored when a drug is started. Report any unusual symptoms to the prescribing doctor right away. It is important to follow the doctor’s instructions when taking any medication, including vitamins and herbal supplements. Also, let the doctor know before adding or changing any medications.
A Service of the National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Page Last Updated: March 22, 2013