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Alzheimer's Disease Medications Fact Sheet

National Institute on Aging

Five prescription drugs currently are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Treating the symptoms of AD can provide patients with comfort, dignity, and independence for a longer period of time and can encourage and assist their caregivers as well.

It is important to understand that none of these medications stops the disease itself.

Treatment for Mild to Moderate AD

Four of these medications are called cholinesterase inhibitors. These drugs are prescribed for the treatment of mild to moderate AD. They may help delay or prevent symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time and may help control some behavioral symptoms. The medications are: Razadyne® (formerly known as Reminyl®) (galantamine), Exelon® (rivastigmine), Aricept® (donepezil), and Cognex® (tacrine). Scientists do not yet fully understand how cholinesterase inhibitors work to treat AD, but current research indicates that they prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical believed to be important for memory and thinking. As AD progresses, the brain produces less and less acetylcholine; therefore, cholinesterase inhibitors may eventually lose their effect.

No published study directly compares these drugs. Because all four work in a similar way, it is not expected that switching from one of these drugs to another will produce significantly different results. However, an AD patient may respond better to one drug than another. Cognex® (tacrine) is no longer actively marketed by the manufacturer.

Treatment for Moderate to Severe AD

The fifth approved medication, known as Namenda® (memantine), is an N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist. It is prescribed for the treatment of moderate to severe AD. Studies have shown that the main effect of Namenda® is to delay progression of some of the symptoms of moderate to severe AD. The medication may allow patients to maintain certain daily functions a little longer. For example, Namenda® may help a patient in the later stages of AD maintain his or her ability to go to the bathroom independently for several more months, a benefit for both patients and caregivers.

Namenda® is believed to work by regulating glutamate, another important brain chemical that, when produced in excessive amounts, 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 AD.

Dosage and Side Effects

Doctors 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 inhibitor medications. However, the higher the dose, the more likely are side effects. The recommended effective dosage of Namenda® is 20 mg/day after the patient has successfully tolerated lower doses. Some additional differences among these medications are summarized in the table on the other side.

Patients may be drug sensitive in other ways, and they 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.


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