The answer to this question is significant and important for anyone suffering or at risk from Alzheimer’s disease. And it’s particularly critical for care partners and families that will ultimately be responsible for the journey of care that an Alzheimer’s patient must take in life. The fact is that there is a very strong and relevant point: Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging and just because there is no cure, there are still steps to take that can slow the progression of the disease. Information is power, and with the right information patients and families can plan a strategy to make the most of the days, months or years ahead and provide someone with Alzheimer’s disease the best quality of life possible.
Alzheimer’s Medication Currently Available
While there is no drug to cure Alzheimer’s, there are medications available as an Alzheimer’s treatment to impede the progression of the disease. As the condition advances, brain cells die and connections among these cells are broken, causing cognitive symptoms to increase. Current medications are available to help lessen or stabilize symptoms by impacting certain chemicals that carry messages between the nerve cells of the brain. While this effect is limited in its duration, it still can provide extra time for a patient to be mentally “present” with their friends and family.
According to our friends at the Alzheimer’s Association, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two types of medications as an Alzheimer’s treatment to treat the cognitive symptoms of the disease, including memory loss, confusion, and problems with thinking and reasoning. Cholinesterase inhibitors such as Aricept, Exelon and Razadyne are used in the early-to-moderate stages of the disease, while an Alzheimer’s medication knows as memantine (Namenda) is used for moderate to late stages of Alzheimer’s. In certain cases, physicians will prescribe both categories of medications at the same time.
Alzheimer’s Medications for Early-to-Moderate Stages
In the early-to-moderate stages of Alzheimer’s, Cholinesterase inhibitors are prescribed to treat symptoms related to memory, thinking, language, judgment and other cognitive processes. These medications prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine (a-SEA-til-KOH-lean), a chemical messenger important for learning and memory. By keeping acetylcholine levels high, this supports the communication between nerve cells of the human brain.
While the effectiveness of this category of Alzheimer’s medication varies from person to person, it is generally well tolerated by patients (but anyone considering these drugs should always discuss potential side effects with a physician). Of the three drugs in this category, Donepezil (Aricept) is approved to treat all stages of Alzheimer’s, Rivastigmine (Exelon) and Galantamine (Razadyne) are approved to treat mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s.
Moderate-to-Late Stage Alzheimer’s Medication
For advanced, late-stage Alzheimer’s, there is really only one medication option available: Memantine (Namenda). Memantine regulates the activity of glutamate, a chemical involved in information processing for the brain. This drug can improve mental function and the ability to perform daily activities for some people, including memory, attention, reason, language and the ability to perform simple tasks. There is some evidence that individuals with moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s who are taking a cholinesterase inhibitor might benefit by also taking memantine. Memantine and a combination of memantine and donepezil (Namzaric) are approved by the FDA for treatment of moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s. But Memantine can also cause side effects, including headache, constipation and dizziness.
Other Alzheimer’s Treatments
Beyond current medications, there are a broad range of Alzheimer’s treatments that offer new hope. P. Murali Doraiswamy, Head of Biological Psychiatry at Duke University and Senior Fellow at Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging, was recently asked what treatment he considered the most promising. He said: “I’m most excited about diagnostic advances. By using a combination of biomarkers, genetic tests and new brain scans, we are inching very close to predicting not only who will develop Alzheimer’s but the exact age when they may start developing symptoms. This offers huge opportunities for conducting prevention trials. Of course, it also brings a whole host of ethical challenges, since our diagnostic and predictive abilities are advancing far faster than our ability to prevent Alzheimer’s.”
“On the treatment side, there are several developments that I am excited about,” he continued. “The interactions between vascular disease and memory loss suggest that at least some aspects of Alzheimer’s may be modifiable through diet and exercise. Dimebon, a drug that improves mitochondrial function, has yielded promising results and is in final stages of testing. In addition, therapeutic strategies which target the brain’s own ability to repair itself – for example, by delivering nerve growth factor through viral vectors – are in clinical trials. Until we have a cure, however, it’s really important to focus on improving the quality of life of people with Alzheimer’s.”
While not an Alzheimer’s Cure, Quality of Life Matters
None of these treatments present an actual cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But it is critically important to realize that they are treatments to maximize the quality of life for a patient and their family while living with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive conditions. This is why Georgia Memory Net was born. This is an organization supported by the Georgia Department of Human Services’ Georgia Alzheimer’s Project, along with partners in Georgia academic institutions, community organizations, professional associations, and the State Aging and Disabilities Resource Connection Network.
The goal of Georgia Memory Net is to improve screening and care of Georgians with memory loss and other cognitive impairments linked to Alzheimer’s and related dementias. This care is provided by supporting through a patient’s primary care physician (PCP) through regional Memory Assessment Clinics (MACs). These MACs improve patient access to early and accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders and improve long-term care and outcomes for patients and caregivers.
At these centers, trained clinicians perform diagnostic assessment and care planning that help a patient, their family and the patient’s PCP to develop a plan for managing a patient’s unique condition. The important part is that they will not face this condition alone.
Through GA Memory Net, there is a broad network supporting patients, including Community Services Educators (CSE), Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs), the Alzheimer’s Association, and other organizations that provide education and support for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, as well support for their care partners. The centers will communicate diagnosis and treatment recommendations back to the patient’s PCP, so the provider is better prepared to treat a patient’s memory issues and cognitive decline.
The most important step we can recommend is that you or your loved ones go to the doctor for your Annual Wellness Visit. This health screening includes a 3-minute screening tool used to detect memory problems and certain related cognitive challenges. If any issues are uncovered during this screening, the doctor may make a referral to a Memory Assessment Clinic. The point is that help is available. No one should ever accept that Alzheimer’s and similar conditions “are what they are” and that there is no choice in fighting back against these diseases. There are options out there and getting screened is the first step towards a better life.
Georgia Memory Net at a Glance
What is Georgia Memory Net and why does it exist? There’s so much information about Alzheimer’s and related dementias in Georgia, and how to diagnose and treat them, that it can become overwhelming. We’ve done our best to simplify the info into a clear one-page infographic.