Alzheimer's disease has no cure, but there are drugs that can help if administered in the disease's early stages. Some recently developed treatments have tried to use several drugs in combination. Drugs may also be used to treat ancillary symptoms like insomnia, depression and anxiety, or to guard against infection.
Cholinesterase inhibitors are one class of Alzheimer's drug. Donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine all work to boost neurotransmitter levels, though some of these drugs can produce unpleasant side effects. Most Alzheimer's drugs are used in the disease's early stages, though donepezil can be used to treat Alzheimer's disease in any of its stages. For people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), donepezil can delay the development of Alzheimer's by up to a year [source: Mayo Clinic]. MCI is a transitional disease, characterized by cognitive problems more severe than those that accompany old age but less severe than the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. As many as one in five Americans over 70 may have MCI. Some of them develop Alzheimer's disease; others only have MCI or eventually regain normal cognitive function [source: Mayo Clinic].
Memantime (brand name: Namenda) is used to treat advanced Alzheimer's disease. Initially used in Germany in the 1980s, it's the only drug approved exclusively for use in the disease's later stages. Memantime can be used alone or with a cholinesterase inhibitor. The drug is designed to guard neurons from glutamate, which, in Alzheimer's patients, can overly excite brain cells, causing their cell membranes to become more permeable, eventually leading to decreased function or cell death.
Memantine and all other approved Alzheimer's drugs are designed to slow down the disease or to improve quality of life. None can cure the disease, although the understanding of Alzheimer's has progressed dramatically in recent years. Now, a person may live up to 20 years with the disease. Scientists are now looking at using drugs in combination with one another and at new drugs that directly attack the neurofibrillary tangles that develop in neurons, potentially leading to more effective treatments.
Despite the advances made in the field of Alzheimer's research, life can be extraordinarily difficult for those with advanced Alzheimer's and for the families of the afflicted. To watch a friend or family member gradually degenerate can be excruciating. Numerous organizations, books, support groups, doctors and other resources can help those who have the disease or people who must take care of a sick loved one.
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