Alzheimer's Disease Causes, Stages, and Symptoms (cont.)
Howard Crystal, MD
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
In this Article
What treatment and management options are available for Alzheimer's disease?
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The management of Alzheimer's disease consists of medication based and non-medication based treatments. Two different classes of pharmaceuticals are approved by the FDA for treating Alzheimer's disease: cholinesterase inhibitors and partial glutamate antagonists. Neither class of drugs has been proven to slow the rate of progression of Alzheimer's disease. Nonetheless, many clinical trials suggest that these medications are superior to placebos (sugar pills) in relieving some symptoms.
In patients with Alzheimer's disease there is a relative lack of a brain chemical neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. (Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers produced by nerves that the nerves use to communicate with each other in order to carry out their functions.) Substantial research has demonstrated that acetylcholine is important in the ability to form new memories. The cholinesterase inhibitors (ChEIs) block the breakdown of acetylcholine. As a result, more acetylcholine is available in the brain, and it may become easier to form new memories.
Four ChEIs have been approved by the FDA, but only donepezil hydrochloride (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), and galantamine (Razadyne - previously called Reminyl) are used by most physicians because the fourth drug, tacrine (Cognex) has more undesirable side effects than the other three. Most experts in Alzheimer's disease do not believe there is an important difference in the effectiveness of these three drugs. Several studies suggest that the progression of symptoms of patients on these drugs seems to plateau for six to 12 months, but inevitably progression then begins again.
Of the three widely used AchEs, rivastigmine and galantamine are only approved by the FDA for mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease, whereas donepezil is approved for mild, moderate, and severe Alzheimer's disease. It is not known whether rivastigmine and galantamine are also effective in severe Alzheimer's disease, although there does not appear to be any good reason why they shouldn't.
The principal side effects of ChEIs involve the gastrointestinal system and include nausea, vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea. Usually these side effects can be controlled with change in size or timing of the dose or administering the medications with a small amount of food. The majority of patients will tolerate therapeutic doses of ChEIs.
Reviewed by William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR on 12/5/2013
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Alzheimer's Disease - Describe Your Experience Question: Please describe the symptoms you or loved one experienced with Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's Disease - Treatments Question: What stage of Alzheimer's disease are you or your loved one currently experiencing, and have any treatments been effective?
Alzheimer's Disease - Prognosis Question: What is the prognosis for your friend or relative who has Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's Disease - Dementia Question: Has a friend or relative been diagnosed with dementia? What are her/his symptoms?
Alzheimer's Disease - Warning Signs Question: Do you have any of the warning signs of Alzheimer's? Please discuss your symptoms and concerns.
Alzheimer's Disease - Home Safety Question: In what ways have you made the home safer for a friend or relative with Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's Disease - Medications Question: If your relative is on a medication for Alzheimer's, what changes have you noticed?
Alzheimer's Disease - Driving Question: What motivated you to take away the keys or car from your loved one who has Alzheimer's?