Dementia, and its leading type, Alzheimer’s disease, are very scary and difficult topics because our mind is our most valuable resource. It is frightening whether you are currently experiencing the signs and symptoms of cognitive impairment, caring for a family member, witnessing a friend progress through the disease, or just someone who is thinking, “will this happen to me?”
What are my options? This is a question I personally ask myself at age 29, having a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, I have witnessed my grandmother on my dad’s side progress through the stages of Alzheimer’s for the past eight to ten years. Being in pharmacy school at the time of her initial noticeable symptoms, the first question I had was, “aren’t there medications out there to treat this?”
The short answer is kind of, but it’s very important to understand the limitations of the current available medications. First and foremost, there is currently no medication on the market, over-the-counter or prescription, that cures any type of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, or truly prevents the progression of the disease. The good news is that there are some medications that may help treat some of the cognitive symptoms for a limited time, including memory loss, confusion, and problems with thinking and reasoning.
Current Pharmaceutical Options for Dementia:
The two main groups of medications for the treatment of dementia, specifically the Alzheimer’s type, are the cholinesterase inhibitors and NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor antagonists.
Cholinesterase inhibitors are indicated for all stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The available cholinesterase inhibitors include: Aricept (donepezil), Exelon (rivastigmine), and Razadyne (galantamine). In simple terms, this medication group keeps an important communication molecule, acetylcholine, in the brain around a little longer. This molecule is essential for a group of brain functions including: memory, orientation, ability to pay attention, ability to reason, how we speak and communicate, and our ability to perform day-to-day tasks.
The second class of medications is the NMDA receptor antagonists. Since there is only one of these, Namenda (memantine), we’ll refer to it by it’s name. Namenda comes in a short-acting and long acting formulation. All this means is that if you take the short acting formulation, you need to take the medication two times per day and if you take the long-acting, you need to take it once daily. Namenda is indicated for use in moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease.
This medication works on a different communication molecule in the brain, glutamate, but is used to treat the same symptoms as the cholinesterase inhibitors: memory, orientation, ability to pay attention, ability to reason, how we speak and communicate, and our ability to perform day-to-day tasks. (For more detailed information, check out the Alzheimer’s Association.)
These medications are still being studied and research is still being done to understand what stages of Alzheimer’s disease they will be effective in as well as their effectiveness in other types of dementia.
What does this mean for me?
Medications are important in treating the symptoms primarily in dementia of Alzheimer’s type, and are also being studied for all dementias. It is important to work with your physician, pharmacist and medical team in determining what is right for you.
These medications are treating the symptoms of dementia but are not truly changing the biological course of the disease, the destruction of brain cells. Think of these drugs similar to NyQuil for a cold – it will help you sleep and perhaps make your head feel better, but it doesn’t make the cold go away.
Given our current stage in reaching a cure, our best option to reduce the impact of dementia is prevention. The preventative approach can include proper nutrition, sleep hygiene, exercises for the body, exercises for the brain, and maintaining active social connections. I’ll share more with you on many of these aspects over the coming months from multiple experts researching the effects of each. We will also highlight what our research here at SMART Brain Aging has shown around our cognitive training programs in helping to prevent and delay the onset of dementia.
If you are interested in checking out our online training program, Brain U Online, be sure to CLICK HERE to register to be notified of its launch in November 2016.
About the Author:
Brian Straub, Pharm D, is a licensed pharmacist, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. With dementia running in Brian’s family, he was drawn to help find and create solutions for the treatment of dementia. He has joined the SMART Brain Aging team as our Director of Marketing. He is our medication expert and growth guru.