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Medications Used to Treat Alzheimer's

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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Early-stage Alzheimer's medications

Though Alzheimer's is a disease without a cure, several drug treatments have been approved by the FDA to treat its effects. The drugs commonly used to treat Alzheimer's disease fall into two types: those for memory and cognition, and those for symptoms and related conditions. Treatment varies according to the stage of disease a person is in.

Early-stage memory-cognition drugs

Many patients in early-stage Alzheimer's are prescribed one of three cholinesterase inhibitors, a type of drug that helps to preserve levels of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger in the brain that is important for memory and learning but is in low supply in people with Alzheimer's. The drugs are:

  • Aricept (donepezil)
  • Exelon (rivastigmine)
  • Razadyne (galantamine)

The medications work to improve mental function by blocking the enzyme cholinesterase, which normally removes excess acetylcholine from the brain. They help stabilize mental function and delay declines, especially for those whose symptoms are still mild. Each drug varies slightly in its chemistry and has different side effects. So sometimes if one isn't well tolerated, another is prescribed.

A fourth cholinesterase inhibitor, Cognex (tacrine hydrochloride), was prescribed in the past but is no longer recommended because it can cause liver damage.

Other early-stage medications

A patient with early-stage Alzheimer's could also be treated with an antidepressant if found to have depression. Depression and dementia often go hand in hand.